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George Pelecanos
The Cut
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Reagan Arthur Books / Little, Brown and Company / Hachette Book Group
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-316-07842-9
Publication Date: 08-29-2011
298 Pages; $25.99
Date Reviewed: 09-11-2011

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction

With a single paragraph, we are in the world. A DC lawyer's office, where ex-Iraq war vet Spero Lucas listens to Tom Petersen, a pretty high-powered lawyer who wants Lucas to check out the scene of a carjacking for a client who is dead-to-rights guilty. One of two young men, boys, really, high on stupidity and testosterone. The other kid is SOL, stuck with a PD. To Petersen's annoyance, Lucas insists on taking notes even though Petersen has all the relevant facts on printouts. But Lucas finds that writing it down helps his mind focus. He's a focused guy.

George Pelecanos is a focused writer. You won't close the book until you've finished reading, and only then will it occur to you that you have been reading, and not simply living in the world he created, in these lives you have experienced. 'The Cut' is a seamless novel of incredible social realism, to the degree that the world Pelecanos builds will be as or more memorable than one you return to when you finish the book.

World-building is a term generally used for science fiction or historical novels, but 'The Cut' demonstrates quite ably that it applies to mainstream literary novels as well. The Washington DC that Pelecanos creates here, house-by-house, is vivid and often shockingly familiar. Spero, his family, his friends, his clients and the criminals that people the novel come to life a manner so filled with the right details that they seem intimately familiar even as they are observed from the outside, as if by a particularly perceptive anthropologist. There's not one detail, not one word on any page that doesn't seem both necessary and true.

You won't notice while you are reading, but the key to the power of this novel is the understated prose of George Pelecanos. He knows how to strike the perfect balance. He gives readers all the details they need to build the neighborhood and the people in it, but no more. There's a pleasant sense of absence when you read 'The Cut,' because the prose is so transparent. Pelecanos does not needlessly elaborate on details that don't matter. His characters don't think about things to explain something the reader does not know. The prose immediately engages our sense of the reading experience and makes it so easy we don't seem to be reading; we're living, in DC, as Spero Lucas.

Spero's a vet back from Iraq, who works as a finder. He will find anything you need, for a 40% cut. He's smart, but not introspective and he pursues his tasks as an investigator with a very satisfying sense of logical progression. His only tools are an iPhone and a moleskin notebook. His notes and sketches help him intuit that which a photograph or voice recording might miss. Asked by a dodgy client to recover a dodgy parcel, Spero finds even his smart sensibility challenged by circumstances that run out of control like a brakeless truck on a steep decline.

The characters here are laid out simply, but Pelecanos has a knack for layering these simple setups into complicated, very real relationships. Spero comes from a big, multi-racial adopted family, and they're all important to his life. His client, and those who work with his client, cut across a variety of economic levels, never managing to rise beyond the middle class. You'll be able to sit down in the living room of your mind and shoot the shit with any of these men or women. And you'll enjoy doing so even with some of the very bad antagonists. Pelecanos has a very understated sense of humor that can undercut a rush to judgment.

For all the propulsiveness of the plot in 'The Cut' — you'll barely be able to leave your chair while you're reading it — the events never seem forced. In fact, there's an almost kicked-back sensibility at work here, except when your head is getting kicked around by carefully orchestrated and visualized scenes of action. Pelecanos visits all the places he writes about. These are all real places in DC. The world-building pays off in more than just atmosphere and realism. It also makes the story slide by at a breathless pace. The major threads of plot and character are resolved in an incredibly satisfying manner. You'll want to shake the hand of a fictional character when you finish, and hope that he'll stick around for a beer.

Fortunately, Pelecanos leaves more than a few things unresolved. We meet characters that we want to see more of, but, as it happens in reality, there's no time for them in this story. Pelecanos never pushes any of his people to serve the demands of plot. He creates characters who, by virtue of who they are, find themselves drawn towards a dangerous personal precipice. Some may step over and others may step back. Once you take your part of 'The Cut,' you won't be going back, and you won't want to.

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