Tuesday 17 April 2012

The Way Home: Pelecanos Strikes Again

Having read The Sweet Forever (see the entry for April 1st) I was delighted to stumble on another crime novel by George Pelecanos. It is a recent piece of work, published in 2008, whereas The Sweet Forever dates from some ten years earlier. Once again it deals with the consequences of stumbling on a substantial cache of money belonging to some very unpleasant people. Beyond that, though, The Way Home could hardly be more different than its predecessor. Its depiction of incarceration is remarkable, enlightening, and refreshingly free of cliche. And I loved the scene where the old guard nicknamed Shawshank calls to task the troubled-teen-fiction novelist who has come to condescendingly lecture to the inmates; he shows up the guy's work as a meretricious string of clichés. Once again the story is set in Washington DC, a locale which Pelecanos deftly and vividly brings to life. Chandler had Los Angeles, George V. Higgins had Boston. Pelecanos has Washington. It's a highly accomplished novel. Whereas The Sweet Forever had a ragged, badass vibe, The Way Home possesses a smooth cool precision. It also features some magnificently drawn bad guys. In the ten years between the two books, Pelecanos has clearly advanced as a writer — which is to take nothing away from The Sweet Forever, which I loved. And, like the earlier book, The Way Home moves grippingly towards a hellish and brutal climax. I couldn't put it down. My only grouse? Of course, there has to be one: the boring, generic crime novel cover art on the UK edition. This was a let down after the terrific graphics which adorned my copy of The Sweet Forever. Anyway, I'm now actively looking for anything Pelecanos has written, and I advice you to do the same. (The splendid portrait of Pelecanos is by April Saul / Getty Images and accompanies an interview with Pelecanos in the Los Angeles Times. Click on the image to go to it.)

Sunday 1 April 2012

Quality Crime Fiction — The Sweet Forever by George Pelecanos

To be truthful, I picked up this novel simply because I liked the cover art. A crime thriller with an LP on the front is right up my street. But then I filed the book away on a shelf and only picked it up again recently because I needed something to read on public transport, and it would fit in my jacket pocket. Little did I know. Now I wish I'd picked it up years ago. It's superb. Pelecanos's writing brings to mind the great WR Burnett. In fact, it brings to mind Chester Himes rewritten by WR Burnett. It has the intense, vivid low lifes and street culture of Himes. But it's also a well organised and convincingly authentic thriller, like Burnett wrote. In other words, fantastic stuff. Its apocalyptic climax also calls to mind James Ellroy's LA Confidential, at least in the screen adaptation by Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland. Set in Washington in the late 1980s, it turns out that The Sweet Forever is the third book in a sequence called the DC Quartet. I'm now going to be checking out the other titles in the series. Indeed, anything else written by Pelecanos has now got my full attention. The Sweet Forever begins with Eddie Golden, something of a loser of an appliance installer, lucking into a bag of drugs money. If you can call that luck. Eddie isn't really avaricious. He just wants to impress his girlfriend Donna. But the people Eddie has ripped off (and they definitely see it as being ripped off) are very nasty indeed. And you soon have a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that bad things are going to happen. And they turn out to be worse than you could imagine. One of the virtues of Pelecanos is his great, often faultless, dialogue. He has a wonderful ear. No wonder he was snapped up to write scripts for The Wire (and The Pacific). But his ability as a novelist is beyond question. He writes tight, evocative prose. And he can certainly make you wince. In the early sections of The Sweet Forever I was rather at sea, though. There's this issue about names. Pelecanos has a lot of characters, and he throws them at you all at once. I found there were too many people with too many names. Sometimes he'd refer to a character by his first name, sometimes by the last name. I was once reading a novel by Robert Ferrigno, another terrific American crime novelist. I reached the violent climax of the book and suddenly froze. I had to flip back 50 pages to work out who the hell he was talking about. It turned out that a character who'd been referred to by their surname for virtually the entire novel was suddenly being called by their first name (or vice versa). Needless to say, the slam bang ending was somewhat compromised. Clear, memorable and unambiguous naming of characters matters. Back to Pelecanos and The Sweet Forever. I don't want to make a major beef about this, but for this reader there were some confusingly similar names. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I give you Anthony Taylor and Alan Rogers. And Marcus Clay and Clarence Tate. My brain, at least, tended to short circuit on these. And there were not enough nicknames or simple memory hooks. Anthony Taylor begins promisingly as the Kid in the Raiders Jacket and for my money should have remained as such. Ironically these problems pretty much vanish in screenwriting – the eye can immediately recognise the characters, the mind can sort them out, and the audience can get on with enjoying the story. Still more ironically, the same problem rear up even more seriously in the screenplay itself, where it's absolutely crucial for the reader (often a bored script executive) to remember who everybody is, and not be confused. Vivid names and designations are crucial. The Kid in the Raiders Jacket would stay that in a script. Pelecanos is big on sport, basketball in particular which adds a layer of authenticity to the story. Although it left this reader cold, it helps to define the time and place and characters. Speaking of sport, Pelecanos also occasionally passes around the viewpoint of his characters like a basketball. Initially this was jarring to me. I like to stick with one character's point of view, and if a change is necessary I like it to start with a new chapter. Not instantly knowing whose viewpoint is telling the story can lead to rapid dissipation of reader empathy. But as I grew familiar with Pelecanos's characters and was gripped by his story (and boy, is it gripping) any such concerns fell away. This book is an engrossing read. As with the sport, there is a lot of talk about the popular music of the period. Just about the only recording artist among these that I could stomach is Prince. But that isn't the point. Discussion of the music scene brings the period to life, even if we can't stand the songs, fashions or haircuts any more. The Sweet Forever is compelling and readable and completely delivers the goods. Near the end, as the shit hits the fan and the drug killings start, it suddenly introduces a host of new characters. I gather these are Pelecanos regulars from his other books. Readers familiar with them won't have any problems. But for a novice like me, the abrupt appearance of important new characters who are crucial to the climax is jarring. A classic example of this is Peter Driscoll's The Wilby Conspiracy, a terrific thriller set in Apartheid South Africa concerning a cache of diamonds. It's a memorable, well written action novel and I recommend it most highly. But on page 225 (of 256) a major new character is introduced and plays an important part in the climax. No screenwriter would be allowed to get away with that. But even the late introduction of Nick Stefanos (about whom Pelecanos has written a series of novels) and Vietnam vet Adamson can't slow down or diminish the explosive climax of The Sweet Forever. Stunning. The great cover art, which set the whole ball rolling for me, is credited simply to Keenan. I am going to confidently assert this is Jamie Keenan. With my fingers firmly crossed.