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January|February 2003
Dante and the Death Penalty By Matthew Pearl
A History of Hard Time By Daniel Brook
Farewell, Raymond Chandler By James Fallows
Chapel and State By Sarah Barringer Gordon

Farewell, Raymond Chandler

A true-to-life portrait of the law makes the novels of George P. Pelecanos more than just pulp fiction.

By James Fallows

When you want to pat a crime novelist on the head, you say that he does for his turf—Glasgow in the case of the Scottish writer Ian Rankin, the Boston area for Dennis Lehane—what Raymond Chandler did for World War II-era L.A. I just picked up Daniel Woodrell's novel Tomato Red. Above the title on the front cover is a blurb from The Los Angeles Times. "Woodrell does for the Ozarks," the blurb announces, "what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles."

Chandler's fiction has just been released in three omnibus editions, a sure sign that he maintains an avid readership and lofty reputation. In addition to being a storyteller, Chandler also left his mark as a critic. His 1944 Atlantic Monthly essay "The Simple Art of Murder" attracted attention for its swipe at the conventions of detective fiction and some wonderfully catty put-downs of his rivals. Chandler directed his greatest contempt at A.A. Milne. In 1922, before Winnie the Pooh made him a star, Milne enjoyed modest success with The Red House Mystery, which the famed critic Alexander Woollcott called "one of the three best mystery stories of all time." Chandler, however, considered the book preposterous because of the gaping holes in its plot and its reliance on coincidence, which made it no more true-to-life than the Pooh books. (Chandler's essay is again available, together with several of his short stories, in a collection called The Simple Art of Murder.)

Yet Chandler's own novels are now showing their age. The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely now seem just as stylized and unrealistic as the noir films adapted from them in the 1940s. Both the books and the films are artful and entertaining, but also more than a little bit campy, like zoot suits and swing dancing. Chandler sizes up his fellas and dames in undeniably snappy language. "I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it," Philip Marlowe says of himself on the first page of The Big Sleep. He introduces a thug with a tender heart, Moose Malloy, as "a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.... Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food." From Farewell, My Lovely: "It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window." All this is like Ring Lardner's immortal "Shut up, he explained." Jazzy and not quite contemporary.

In Chandler's mysteries, the law, like the language, also seems dated. The cops and prosecutors are never as smart as Marlowe, and they resent him for it. Their real function is to banter with the wily hero-detective and create obstacles through their clumsy literal-mindedness for him to surmount. But in the end, they're always shown up by Chandler's clever, rule-breaking protagonist. The cause of justice would be better served in Chandler's world if the state's bumbling law enforcement apparatus could just stay out of the way.

The novels of George P. Pelecanos have been praised as the contemporary equivalents of Chandler's, but—at least by modern standards—Pelecanos's are better. His territory is the unglamorous, workaday side of metropolitan Washington, D.C. Private detectives and policemen also populate this landscape, along with prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges—and, of course, criminals, both penny-ante and viciously psychopathic. But the role of the law and its agents is far more complicated in Pelecanos's books.

In the last generation, nonfiction accounts of police work and prosecution have emphasized the compromises that are necessary to keep the system running. If prosecutors couldn't offer plea bargains, the court system would collapse; if the police had no informers, they would never be able to make arrests. Pelecanos's world is full of these expedient departures from the theoretical clarity of the law, without falling into outright cynicism about the base motives of the police.

Pelecanos published his first book in 1992 when he was 35, and his tenth novel, Hell to Pay, was released in 2002. The books are animated by dialogue that sounds like the real thing, spoken by representatives of a variety of classes and ethnic groups. They include pop-culture references to movies (the Blaxploitation epics of the 1970s, for instance), to sports (most of the male characters, white and black, love playing basketball and talking about the pro and college game), and, on practically every page, to music (Should Jimi Hendrix recordings be put in the pop or soul bins?). Since the mid-1990s, Pelecanos has enjoyed considerable acclaim within the world of American crime writing and has attained crossover literary status in Europe. His latest book has received the sort of enthusiastic mainstream attention in the United States that could lead to his being recognized as a "real" literary figure.

In Pelecanos's writing, the law itself becomes a character as complex as any human one. His characters who are involved or at odds with the law are capable of surprising us with their benevolence—and their malevolence. The central symbols of American law—the White House and the Justice Department, the Capitol and the Supreme Court—are visible from the part of Washington, D.C., that the novels inhabit. Pelecanos's terrain, however, has rarely been portrayed in fiction before.

Readers of The Washington Post may recognize this as "Metro section" Washington—not the official business of the politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, and pundit-crats described in the "A" section of the newspaper, nor the glamorous people described in the "Style" section. Instead this is the blue-collar city of blacks, whites, Hispanics, and assorted immigrants doing jobs that could just as easily be located in Oakland or Detroit. What links the action to D.C. is the characters' ongoing resentment about being ruled by congressmen elected from other parts of the country, with no real attachment to the district. Nick Stefanos, a Pelecanos character who appears in several books, reads a newspaper story about local problems:

Meanwhile, fat-cat politicians from Virginia and North Carolina . . . and suburbanites who made their living in town but paid no commuter taxes, ridiculed the District of Columbia relentlessly. Stefanos, a lifelong Washingtonian, was fully aware of the problems. Like most residents, though, he didn't care to hear about them from leeches, tourists, and self-serving southerners.

Stefanos is one of a rotating, multigenerational cast of Pelecanos characters, most of whom are either black (working class, professional class, or criminal class) or like Stefanos, second- or third-generation Greek immigrants (with a similar range of class backgrounds). Pelecanos himself is the son of a Greek immigrant. As a teenager he worked as a delivery boy for his father's lunch counter in Washington. Before becoming a writer, he worked in restaurants, appliance stores, and other commercial places he describes in his books, and he articulates the jaundiced views of the unpampered.

Even the bad guys he writes about are social critics. In Shame the Devil, published in 2000, a psychopath named Frank Farrow ends up working as a dishwasher in a resort on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where D.C. professionals go for a "refreshing" getaway weekend. Farrow "took the last dinner plate from a gray bus tray and used an icing wand to scrape what was left of a rich man's lunch" into a trash can, and considered the clientele:

Well-to-do white people. There wasn't anything more pathetic. Khaki pants, Bass Weejuns, outdoor gear, sweaters tied around the neck for those days when the weather was on the warm side but 'unpredictable.' They had come down here with their spouses for an overnight at the 'quaint' bed-and-breakfast. They'd go 'antiquing' around the town, have a nice dinner, wrestle for a couple of minutes in the four-poster bed, go home the next day just as sad and unsatisfied as when they arrived. The point was, they could tell their friends they had spent a quiet weekend on the Eastern Shore. Farrow guessed it was all about making some kind of statement.

Shame the Devil does an especially good job of introducing the mechanics of law and justice in a realistic though not wholly cynical way, but it's hardly the only Pelecanos novel that does. King Suckerman (1997) is set in 1976, at the time of the Bicentennial celebrations in Washington. (In the climactic eliminate-the-bad-guy scene, some of the gunshots are masked by the Fourth of July fireworks on the mall.) This was also a time of general optimism about black "home rule" in the District, of bell bottoms and giant Afro hairdos, and of Shaft-type films—of which the fictional "King Suckerman" movie is one. In this book, a recurring character named Marcus Clay is just starting out in the record business, and his Greek-American friend (from teenage basketball), Dimitri Karras, has a more or less promising future. More precisely: He's still in his 20s, so he has time to burn.

They end up being pursued by another "salt and pepper" team—of murderers. These killers resemble the real-world D.C.-area snipers of 2002: One is a youthful apprentice and the other a malign leader, and they kill with a combination of careful calculation and spur-of-the-moment brutality. Yet their story differs because the police never catch up with them. Instead, the protagonists Clay and Karras figure out that the killers are coming and snuff out the threat themselves.

The Sweet Forever (1998) is set ten years after King Suckerman, in the spring of 1986. The external event that marks the period is the NCAA "March Madness" basketball tournament. All the characters cheer for the best local team, the Maryland Terrapins, and while the Terps don't go all the way, their star, Len Bias, shows his promise. The next-to-last chapter of the book follows the celebration through working-class D.C. when Bias signs a huge deal with the Boston Celtics and its famous cigar-smoking general manager, Red Auerbach, who lives in the District. The very last chapter, only two pages long, never mentions Bias's death from a drug overdose two days after he signed the deal, but it shows the impact of that news on the neighborhood. The plot of the book turns on the ruination drugs have brought to the District, or at least the part chronicled by Pelecanos.

As in most of Pelecanos's novels, police and lawyers are central figures in The Sweet Forever, but with the same range of motives and qualities as the other characters. One of the white cops, Richard Tutt, seems almost a caricature of obnoxiousness. He endlessly razzes his black partner, Kevin Murphy, with racist jokes, and then gives him a high five to show that it's all in good fun. Murphy, who has an ailing wife and is serving out his time till his pension, keeps swallowing his rage and pride. After Tutt tells a particularly vulgar joke, he is relieved to hear Murphy call him by his nickname, "King":

[That] meant everything between them was okay. Course, Tutt knew it would be okay. Civilians didn't understand about the shell cops had, the things that could be said between partners. You could use any goddamn words you wanted to use in fun, because those were just words, and there was only one real thing that mattered, one serious task at hand, and that was to watch your partner's back.

Pelecanos makes clear that Tutt is deluding himself—Murphy detests him. Further complicating the situation, Tutt is a dirty cop, on the take from a drug dealer. Murphy is presented as essentially a principled man: He does his best to rescue an 11-year-old boy who has been targeted by casually violent drug dealers. But he needs his share of the drug take to care for his wife, who is rendered helpless by depression. Murphy grapples for a way to recover his honor within the uncomfortable circumstances that Tutt and his wife have put him in. And it turns out that Tutt also has a kind of honor. Criminals and cops alike recognize in him a physical, animal-like bravery that few of them possess; he believes in protecting his partner's back.

Shame the Devil, set in 1998, is the most emotionally wrenching of Pelecanos's books. Marcus Clay has moved to solid-citizen status, having sold his record stores to a big music chain. Dimitri Karras might as well be dead, because of a family tragedy that I will describe only as the realization of every parent's worst fear. The author of this tragedy is the aforementioned Frank Farrow, who is washing dishes while laying low after the horrible crime. Dan Boyle, a white cop who shows up in several of the books, manages to be the hero of Shame the Devil, while dealing with the failings that hound him whenever he appears in a Pelecanos novel: He is a drunk, he is a racist, and he frames suspects with "throw down" guns and bags of drugs. But he is motivated not just by personal loyalty to his friends, including Karras, but also by a sense that police work should lead to decent ends, even when the means are questionable.

In Raymond Chandler's books, none of the cops or prosecutors appeared to have a conscience, let alone a complicated set of motivations or a sense of humor. The only troubled, truly complex character in his novels was Marlowe himself. On the other hand, everyone in a Pelecanos novel (except for the psychopaths) wrestles with the question of what's the right thing to do. Public defenders care about "justice" in the abstract, but also about the alibi or trick that will get their client off. Internal-affairs investigators in the police department, who are often portrayed as a cop's insidious nightmare, sometimes punish their enemies but also care about trying to clean up the force. Rather than being noble saviors—or self-serving lowlifes in suits—these officers of the law are as hassled, humbled, and outraged by life as the rest of the characters in Pelecanos's D.C. Yet while he paints an intricate and realistic portrait of how the law functions, there is also a sense in his work that despite his view of the law's double-edged character, he remains something of a romantic about the law. He wants his law guys to be better than they are. He wants to be able to rely on the law as something exceptional.

The D.C-area sniper killings that took over the news this fall seemed in a way to be straight out of Pelecanos. They were set on his turf; they were the work of monsters. In their randomness they demonstrated something Pelecanos frequently stresses, the unpredictable intrusion of violence into innocent, routine life. The police, apparently bumbling but ultimately successful, could also have been drawn from Pelecanos.

But a less publicized, equally brutal killing at about the same time and on the same turf was even more representative of the world Pelecanos has created. In mid-October, a 36-year-old Baltimore woman and her five children were burned to death when their house was firebombed, allegedly by a 21-year-old drug dealer. The mother had been trying for months to get the dealer out of her neighborhood. She had called the police dozens of times to complain. Before the authorities could do anything effective, the drug dealer did.

A Pelecanos book would convey the coldness of the killer and the desperation of the victim. But with scenes of officers arguing in the station house or having trouble getting to sleep without drinking themselves there, Pelecanos would also show how their failure to act in time would forever torture the representatives of the law.

James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, is the author most recently of Free Flight.

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