Hell to Pay by George Pelecanos

by David Sanjek

17 July 2002


Private Eyes and Pee Wee Football

“Successful and fortunate crime is called virtue.”
—Seneca, Hercules Furens

Whenever it appears that our national geography has grown altogether uniform, with one urban metropolis little different from another, all one has to do is turn to the work of our premiere crime novelists, and each environment emerges in all its idiosyncratic splendor. To name but a few of these critical cartographers: Walter Mosley and James Ellroy chart the dark streets of L.A.; Elmore Leonard and Jon Jackson unearth the Motor City of Detroit; Linda Barnes zeroes in on Boston, while Julie Smith brings to light the shady side of New Orleans; and a host of scribes illuminate the underbelly of sun-drenched Miami, Carl Hiassen, Edna Buchanan and the late John D. McDonald being but three.

cover art

Hell to Pay

George Pelecanos

(Little, Brown, and Company)

The real estate to which they draw attention seldom resembles the hospitable climes championed by the local chamber of commerce. In that regard, the ten novels George Pelecanos has penned about the working poor and underclass of Washington, D.C. occur in a sphere rarely if ever encountered by the hordes of tourists who flood our nation’s capital year after year. Throughout his writings and notably in his current and quite excellent novel Hell to Pay , the offices of the national government they come to visit occur at such a considerable distance that the halls of power might, in fact, exist in another country altogether.

Pelecanos’ characters have by and large turned to the self-sufficient economy of illegal substances and petty crime, for they feel excluded from the national rhetoric about self-improvement and moral uplift. Many of them refuse to “Just Say No to Drugs” when sale of same provides a dependable source of income and assume that “A Thousand Points of Light” is little more than what fills the sky during 4th of July fireworks.

Pelecanos is a lifelong resident of the nation’s capital who has observed gentrification erode whatever character or sense of continuity the environment once possessed. His protagonists routinely draw attention to the transformation of their city and mark the evaporation of civic identity and social space. Nick Stefanos, the central figure in the first of Pelecanos’ novels, A Firing Offense [1992], observes,

We pulled up to Malone’s rowhouse on Harvard Street, a darkish block lit by old-style D.C. lampposts. This was a real neighborhood, a mix of Latins, blacks, and pioneer whites. There was just enough of a violent undercurrent here to keep the aspiring-to-hipness young professionals away and on the fringe of their beloved Adams Morgan, which had become an artificially eclectic mess of condos, “interesting” ethnic restaurants, Eurotrash discos, and parking lots.

Nick and the other central actors in these books retain their sense of location and personality through dogged dedication to the recollection and retention of the tempestuous history of their home turf. The shenanigans of the coke-snorting Mayor, Marion Berry, come up time and again as does the riots of the mid-60s and the overwhelming sense of malaise that followed the bicentennial and deepened during the Reagan administration. The comfortable and self-contained world of the working class that the parents of these men and women inhabited stands as a lost world swallowed up by urban planning and inner city rot. A number of them reminisce about their childhood with mourn with dismay the prevalent, present-day abandonment of the family structure and sense of neighborhood.

In addition to the security blanket of memory, some solace is gained for these individuals by recurrent reference to the rich array of music that serves as an acoustic illustration of their lives. As Ben Greenman observed in The New Yorker , for Pelecanos, “the ears rather than the eyes are the windows to the soul.” No simple soundtrack, the choice of material and the comments made about it in his novels add up to a moral code in the form of beats and melodies. Therefore, the running commentary on what makes, for example, old school rhythm & blues different from rap permits Pelecanos to explain how each body of sound articulates a wholly distinct body of thinking. The addiction of his recent character, black private investigator Derek Strange, for the soundtracks to western movies underscores his predilection for a potentially outmoded moral code that collides with the amorality of those he pursues.

The intermingling of private lives and the public dilemmas of the cases these characters investigate provide a compelling balance of the intimate and the immediate in each of Pelecanos’ novels. We care as much if not more about the relationships of his protagonists away from the action as we are entranced by the malevolent behavior of his villains. In Hell to Pay , Pelecanos returns to the collaboration between Strange and his associate, the white ex-cop Terry Quinn, who were introduced in the previous novel Right As Rain [2001].

Strange is a black, middle-aged, successful investigator who turns to the younger and more volatile Quinn as a back-up in order to investigate the death of a young African American boy who had been part of the men’s Pee Wee football team. That homicide takes them into the projects of the city and into collision with a small-time drug peddler, Garfield Potter, who killed the young boy in crossfire that occurred while taking out another dealer. This set of events is paralleled by Quinn’s pursuit of a young, middle-class white woman drawn into prostitution and the seasoned pimp who manipulates her.

As these cases proceed to a violent but satisfying conclusion, the private side of Strange and Quinn undergoes an equally tempestuous path. Strange is a settled and successful man, proud of his achievements and eager to give back to the community by mentoring young black children in an athletic context. The weak link in his armor is a lack of emotional commitment, for he hesitates at solidifying his long-standing relationship with his office manager, Janine Baker, and her teenage son, Lionel. Quinn struggles with the memories of his shooting of a black fellow policeman, detailed in Right As Rain , and recognition of his unexamined racism and easily triggered temper.

Both men achieve some measure of resolution in the course of this book, but Pelecanos routinely makes any changes of character contingent upon a clear-eyed and deliberate assessment of the complexity of their motives. One of the reasons his writing is so satisfying is that Pelecanos convinces us to invest our interest in his protagonists, yet denies them either any unsatisfying sugar-coating or equally objectionable knee-jerk cynicism. Strange and Quinn are well-rounded adults, not knights with a license in the inner city, so their evolution in the course of these two deeply involving books convinces us due to the effort Pelecanos shows is necessary for any personal, or social, transformation.

Anyone new to Pelecanos’ work will surely find their appetite whetted for more after reading Hell to Pay . In addition to the two novels devoted to Strange and Quinn, there is the quartet of stories that center on the Greek-American investigator, Nick Stefanos, who shares not only an ethnic heritage with his creator but also experience in a wide range of work environments, including bars and electronics dealerships. Of those narratives, I would most recommend the scathing King Suckerman [1997], in which Nick is a minor character. The book attends to the pursuit by yet another racially mixed team, Dimitri Karras and Marcus Clay, of a particularly unsavory duo of sociopaths, Wilton Cooper and Bobby Roy Clagget, and hums along with an unstoppable velocity. The figure referred to the title is the eponymous star of a made-up blaxploitation feature whose reckless exploits become a benchmark by which both pursuers and pursued measure their characters. Like all of Pelecanos’ work, King Suckerman possesses absolute conviction and an insider’s feel for the dead-end perspective of those living on the edge as well as the ambitions of those yearning for a more satisfying path.

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