There are two stars in George Pelecanos’ new novel, The Cut. The first is Spero Lucas, an Iraq war vet who has carved out an informal business as an investigator with a particular talent for finding things — sometimes, not entirely legal things — that have gone lost. The other is Washington, D.C., where the story takes place.
Lucas is the flashier of the two. He’s in great physical shape, lands women effortlessly, maintains good relationships with his buddies and knows his way around weaponry. He keeps 40 percent of the value of what he retrieves, no matter how illegal the find might be, so he makes a decent nut. He’s complicated enough to be interesting, faithful and morally flexible, with hints of emotional troubles linked to his time in Iraq, his deceased father and some estranged siblings. That’s what you want in a new hero: This is the first mystery to feature Lucas, and he’s got plenty of room to grow, if Pelecanos, one of our best contemporary mystery writers, should have a Spero Lucas series up his sleeve.
Washington doesn’t look quite as good as its costar. It’s got kids stealing cars, run-down bodegas, some cold-eyed killers and a dirty cop or two. But it also has green space, where Lucas runs, bikes and kayaks; it has a very nice lawyer’s office, where he does business; it’s got a neighborhood transitioning from bad to good; and it has put a major marijuana dealer behind bars. Pelecanos has made Washington his literary stamping grounds, and he gets granular in The Cut. He describes streets and intersections, sightlines and cemetery vistas, date-friendly restaurants, easy-to-miss bars and the commercial district passings in the natural way of a longtime resident. This has always been one of the pleasures of mystery novels, the way they are deeply entrenched in a place, and Washington — Lucas’ version, anyway — is as clear as if he’d drawn you a map.
That’s something he might do. Armed with a pen, notebook and smartphone — and, when required, a gun without a serial number — Lucas sets out to find who’s been stealing drug deliveries from the man behind bars, a gentleman drug dealer who trades only in marijuana. It’s a high-end arrangement — FedEx deliveries to unoccupied daytime addresses — and Lucas suspects the well-dressed boys who are managing it aren’t up to the task.
Before the plot kicks into high gear, Lucas gets sweaty with a lovely law student, drinks at the VA, works out a lot and has dinner with his mother and brother Leonidas, a city schoolteacher. They’re the close-knit part of the family, even though they’re adopted sons of Greek parents. Spero is white, and Leo is African American, showing that despite the racial tensions in Washington’s past, its present looks very different. When Spero and Leo call each other brother in front of Leo’s students, it’s an amusing moment; they are confused but not shocked. Nowadays, people blend.
Yet this fluidity with race works to sinister advantage for a pair of murderers. “The fact that one of them was black and one was white was attractive to clients,” Pelecanos writes. “Either one of them could go into certain neighborhoods without arousing suspicion.”
Spero’s pursuit of the lost drugs brings him into striking distance of a handful of dangerous characters, and he’s in the kind of fix that would make any rational person turn and try to get out. Yet Spero goes deeper. This is where things get really interesting, and it’s entirely rooted in his character: He’s confronted mortal danger already, and when threatened, he’s inclined to go all in. For all the winningness of Spero Lucas — his modesty, postwar impatience, love for his family, devoted reading, easy banter, good taste in restaurants, gestures of kindness — it’s this forward drive that makes him interesting, that makes him an excellent candidate for a mystery series.
Where Pelecanos has excelled at character and plot, he’s gone a little thin on the prose itself. People and settings are often described with the same stock phrases, which serve their purpose but function like a cheap establishing shot used again and again. The characters and the Washington of The Cut are complicated and interesting and could come even more alive with more careful scrutiny.
Pelecanos is one of the famous team of top-mystery-novelists-turned-scriptwriters on The Wire, for which he received an Emmy nomination; he’s now working on Treme. In Spero Lucas, he’s got a promising character — as long as he goes all in.