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Hell to Pay

George P. Pelecanos

Little, Brown / Time Warner

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-316-69506-8

Publication Date: 03-01-2002

344 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: 01-09-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004




06-13-03, 06-14-04

At its best, serial detective fiction is literature that stretches beyond a single novel and theme. In successive novels, a writer can create characters and take them to places and depths that can't be effectively covered in one work. By blowing out the requirements of an all-encompassing standalone book, a writer can give his characters room to live an unforced existence. That's when characters come to life beyond the pages for both the reader and the writer. There's a definite risk in writing this way. Single works may seem slight, and the control required is hard to maintain. It requires willpower as well as skill.

The ghettos that line 'Right as Rain' introduced readers to George P. Pelecanos' asphalt vision of Washington DC, Derek Strange, Terry Quinn and the people who make up their world. Strange is a fifty-something black ex-cop who now runs a neighborhood PI business, Terry Quinn his thirty-something ex-cop sometimes-partner. The first novel established their uneasy relationships with themselves, one another and the world around them. Told in prose not just stripped bare but flensed, Pelecanos' story read as more real than reality itself. His plot was compelling, but no more so than the characters. 'Hell to Pay' turns character development into a propulsive plot.

Don't think that Pelecanos has forsaken what many readers will consider his most entertaining strength -- his bad guys. 'Hell to Pay' begins with a lengthy introduction to some small-time but very bad guys. Garfield Potter, Carlton Little and Charles White bust onto the scene with the same straightforward close-focus that Pelecanos used to bring Strange and Quinn to life in 'Right as Rain'. They're neighborhood marijuana dealers in a world where life goes a hundred dollars a pop. Garfield is gunning for one Lorenz Wilder, a no-account who hasn't paid for hydro. (That's the hydroponics-grown marijuana they're selling.) Derek Strange is coaching a neighborhood football team, and his star is a talented ten-year old kid named Joe Wilder. He's also been approached by two gals who want his help finding a fourteen year-old girl who has run away to become a hooker, an assignment Strange passes on to Quinn. The hooks are in.

Pelecanos creates tension easily and naturally, simply by describing the world his characters inhabit. Life is cheap, death is cheaper, and any relief only comes as the result of hard work. That work may be on the right side or the wrong side of the law. It's actually easier for most of these characters to make something of their lives in a world of crime. The opportunities open up at an earlier age. Be warned. For some readers, the level of authenticity may make the work too depressing. It's only Pelecanos' scoured language that enables him to create this world authentically without being heavy-handed. The prose is relentlessly un-judgmental. Pelecanos does not approve or disapprove of the choices these people make; he observes them. Once the reader gets a window on what's going on, it's clear that lots of things can happen, most of them bad.

With a plot this transparent, Pelecanos needs more than perps and pursuers to keep the reader riveted. As tragedy inevitably unfolds, Pelecanos takes the plot to a new level -- the development of his two lead characters, Strange and Quinn. They both want to live a righteous life, but both know they're not doing so now. Strange wants to get right with his woman, Janine and her son, Lionel. Quinn's got a violent streak that he enjoys exercising but knows it's not in his best interest. The events that will transpire are inescapable. Such is the nature of life in the lowest classes. How the characters will react to these events is not predetermined. The action takes place not just in the streets, but in the soul.

In turning character development into plot advancement, Pelecanos is once again well-served by his linguistic restraint. By keeping his language clear, he can give his characters murky morals without becoming a moralistic writer. His characters can contemplate the right course for their lives without seeming as if the writer is giving the reader a lecture. Trapping their moral quandaries within the confines of the bare-bones plot, Pelecanos creates page-turning tension around their moral flip-flops. What's more, he executes the kind of plot twists reserved for who-done-its in the arena of the character's decisions. The reader isn't terrified that someone will be killed. Of course someone will be killed. The reader is terrified that someone will make the wrong decision and will live in regret and self-condemnation. It's a neat trick to make the reader care greatly about your characters by turning their moral decisions into will-he, won't-he mysteries.

But Pelecanos also uses the simple set-up as a scaffold for new levels of plot development. And while surprising the hell out of the reader with the decisions made -- and why -- he takes the characters into an even more dangerous world. The utterly compelling character plot provides a nice bit of misdirection for the train of events to follow.

There is one problem with serial fiction as literature, and Pelecanos is by definition susceptible to that problem. That would be the wait time between installments of the work. Pelecanos' simplicity helps him here as well. Readers don't really need a reminder as to what happened before, since it's perfectly clear. 'Hell to Pay' will have readers waiting impatiently for the next chapter of this long-distance run. One can imagine what Dickens' readers went through, waiting for chapters his books. Like Dickens, Pelecanos focuses on the unimportant, the unimproved, the underbelly. Pelecanos takes the Dickens serial structure to a longer, more complex level. At one point in the novel, Strange says that he doesn't want to solve a crime -- he want to resolve it. Pelecanos himself may not have the same end in mind. How -- or even if -- Pelecanos will resolve these lives is uncertain. Life in these novels does not admit to solutions. But it certainly, fearlessly requires resolutions, and afterwards, the attempt to live up to them.