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Right As Rain

George P. Pelecanos

Little, Brown / Time Warner

US Hardcover First Edition

ISBN 0-316-69526-2

Publication Date: 02-01-2001

332 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: 12-24-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003




06-13-03, 06-14-04

The classic American Private Detective is a "straight shooter", the direct kind of guy who will tell you what he thinks and nothing else, no editorializing, no bullshit. Entire forests have fallen to tell his tale. Its simplicity allows endless variations, innumerable permutations, a variety so vast as to encompass all genres of literature. Lost in this forest, unseeable amidst the trees are the virtues that make this type of tale so appealing. Readers, writers and critics often speak of "hard-boiled" mystery fiction without thinking through the implications. At its best, mystery can in fact boil away the unnecessary elements of fiction, stripping down the tale told to the characters and their actions. Everything else is excess.

George Pelecanos takes the hard-boiled technique one step further. He strips down prose itself to the bare bones, ruthlessly eliminating everything between the reader and the story. 'Right as Rain', his 2001 novel, introduces Derek Strange to Terry Quinn. Strange is a fifty-something African American detective who generally works the divorce/infidelity/small-claims court circuit. He's an ex-cop, a man of few words, trying to stay back from the action. At the request of a grieving mother, he agrees to take up a case outside of his normal beat. Leona Wilson wants Strange to help her exonerate her son Chris, a black beat cop who, while off-duty and apparently trying to arrest a white man for littering, was mistakenly shot by a white cop. Strange finds himself being pulled inexorably to just the kind of situation and people he'd prefer to avoid. The white cop, Terry Quinn, is an intense man who left the force though the shooting was found to be as "right as rain". Methodically working the case, Strange calls upon Quinn, and the two find they have a common interest in uncovering the full truth behind the shooting.

Pelecanos delivers his story in prose that's so stripped down, it's practically existential. From the hilarious opening scene of the novel, where Strange hands over evidence of infidelity to a man who's not ready for the news, Pelecanos skillfully demonstrates a restraint that is well beyond admirable. On one hand, he manages to steer clear of any precious stylization. On the other, he forges a style so pure it ceases to exist. The effect of Pelecanos' prose style is that the reader is fully immersed in any scene that he writes. The reader will essentially forget that they're reading and simply experience the story, simple, primitive, raw. It makes 'Right as Rain' a fast, easy read. But it also enables Pelecanos to write scenes of great power. There's no transition, no ramp-up from simple story to explosively intense. Pelecanos is an expert at getting out of his own way. He makes laconic an art form.

But Pelecanos has a lot more going for him than zen and the art of mystery maintenance. He's able to keep things simple because he has an encyclopedic knowledge of his characters. Strange and Quinn are very different from one another, and viewed with the same prose lens, their differences stand out nicely. However, many readers might find Pelecanos' lowlifes equally if not more entertaining. Ray and Earl Boone are a father-and-son team of hardscrabble hicks who have a powerful homebrew of methamphetamine cooking in their barroom-decorated barn. They sell meth and run heroin from the Colombians to a DC dealer named Cherokee Coleman. Coleman, the Boones, their lieutenants, hangers-on and women alternate between frightening and funny. These guys aren't the world's stupidest criminals, but they didn't choose this career because they found it more challenging than rocket science. However, their solution to the problems they create is stone-cold killing. Their schemes ring true as death. They're not complex, but they are fascinating. The author seems to have either lived the life or spent a lot of time talking to those who did. Pelecanos lets his transparent prose show both sides of the characters without imposing judgment. It's like watching a snake eat a rat.

Pelecanos is not afraid to get behind the emotional lives of his protagonists, which are complex and unpleasant enough to keep them mostly away from Kodak moments. Strange has a love interest, but he's not really willing to admit it to himself, and instead seeks sordid relief in anonymous arms. Quinn, on the other hand, is forced to admit that his love of violence is leading him away from his second career as a used-bookseller and back into pummeling the people he thinks are bad. These are the same emotions that led him to shoot Chris Wilson. Quinn and Strange don't exactly become buddies, but they do learn some respect. Gruff is the order of the day.

Given that Strange is black and Quinn is not only white, but a white cop who shot a black cop, racial tensions are ever-present and plainly portrayed. There are no easy answers. In fact, hard non-answers are all that's on offer. Again and again, characters ask if Quinn would have shot a white man in the same circumstances. There's no feel-good workaround, no happy medium. The fact is, in 'Right as Rain', whites and blacks are uneasy in one another's presence, and though they can get around it, it takes a visible effort by all involved. The tension is never really resolved, which some readers may find problematic, while others will find it emblematic. In any event, the theme is intelligently and clearly presented.

All of this wouldn't necessarily make 'Right as Rain' a great novel unless Pelecanos could bring it together with a satisfying plot. Here's where his restraint once again serves him well. What proves to be a very artful and well-plotted novel reads with a clarity that renders every consequence of every action in an utterly naturalistic prose. It's like a documentary film. Only as the threads assemble themselves is the reader even able to realize the skill that's gone into the creation and assembly of all the pieces. Pelecanos fearlessly edits out the commentary and focuses on the characters and story. His prose is a black-and-white camera snapping scenes with crystal clarity. No need to adjust the focus. Pelecanos is in control. Kick back and enjoy the work of a straight-shooting writer who does with language what his gumshoes do with guns.