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George Pelecanos

Orion £12.99pbk £10.99tbpbk

Reviewed by L.J.Hurst

The guy with the machine gun was sitting opposite me, reading the sports results in the morning paper. He was on his own in a row of four seats - the week before two guys had occupied four seats. No one else could get near, but luckily the train wasn't too full and most people disembarked after a couple of stops. I tried to look nonchalant, but most people didn't even have to bother. Machine gunners taking the train into the suburbs are a common sight: I was riding the train to work in Geneva, Switzerland - the guys would have taken the guns out of the cupboard at home and gone off for their annual military training. That was Christmas 2002.

Ten years ago I walked out of the R***-C****** Hotel in downtown Washington DC early on a Saturday evening. I spent the afternoon on the shopping streets of Georgetown and with nothing better to do I thought I would go back to explore the mall at the river end of town. I didn't stay long - the gangbangers had inherited the streets. When I returned to the hotel my friend lead me a couple of blocks the opposite way for pizza - single men were standing, waiting, under the lights on the street corners, even as we passed the gates to the embassies of some of the most powerful countries in the world. When we took the subway we only rode one way - downtown, and I never took the chance of riding the subway back, in case I stayed on one stop too far.

DC sits between Virginia, a rebel state and Maryland, which remained faithful to the union. I guess they were both bad for their black populations. A lot of them would have been encouraged to move into DC. Not that things were much better there - it was the same President Woodrow Wilson who came to Europe and did so much for peace and understanding here in Geneva, who made segregation official in all Federal buildings back in the USA.

As far as private eye, Derek Strange is concerned, though, Virginia and Maryland are just sources for the gun dealers who supply the drug-dealing gang-bangers, who want something on their hip, inside their baggies, to give them a psychological lift that smack and coke cannot. A man walks taller when he is tooled up.

Unfortunately for Strange he does not realise that his new client in a missing persons case is one of the retards who needs a lift of the metal kind. However, Strange does not feel an obligation to protect the client's identity when he becomes a suspect in the murder of the missing girl and as an ex-cop himself is perfectly willing to assist investigation of what is a case within a case within a case.

Deal in drugs in DC and you're dealing in death: not just because pure shit kills and cut shit kills. Before you know it some other wise-ass wants a piece of the action and is trying to move in on your turf - but he's likely got his own gang; you're going to send him a message first and take out one of his boys. Now this is just the like army - you are a general and you are using your maximum managerial skills to encourage your team, to increase sales, find new supplies and open new markets. And sometimes the troops get killed. Never mind - it's good news for US education that someone understands the metric system, even if they're ghetto kids dealing grams of white. It's not so good news for anyone who doesn't understand what 50mg looks like and then stands with bags of rock salt on a corner - but that is Mario Durham for you, a loser more than once. Mario is just asking to be knocked off, but his brother is one of DC's two biggest dealers and that means some kind of protection. Horace McKinley (whose taste for pizza means he really is big) is Dewayne Durham's rival; both of them enjoying the opportunities left while former kingfish Granville Oliver and his legal team fight against his going to the chair. And Derek Strange is part of that legal team, too.

Strange and his partner, Quinn, both ex-cops have problems. Strange copes better than Quinn but even Strange has to accept help from outside, from another PI named Nick Stefanos.

And across town another ex-cop finds he is getting involved in more ways than he intended. A clever man can sell guns to both sides; a clever man feels cheated when he rents out a gun, takes it back with a reassurance that it has not been used and sells it again; and then finds he is dealing in murder guns. Since gun dealing in DC is a federal offence, such a man might feel the big slammer unattractively close. Derek Strange feels that the firearms dealers of the neighbouring states who know where their pistols are going to end are not much better and before he is finished Strange has stopped some things.

Strange and Quinn, some of the cops, Stefanos, the women who have their kids to look after. And McKinley's sidekick. In all of DC these are the only ones with consciences. They're probably the only ones with imaginations as well. Some of these kids run their gangs like small corporations, even if they can't read or write, they manage, they fill vacancies, and they plan successions. They just can't see a way of living or doing business that is not criminal or certain to end in a long period in the slammer.

In Soul Circus George Pelecanos sums up all these things. It takes a lot of characters and Strange's investigations of those two, three or four plots to give us the full, pessimistic picture of DC life today. Oddly, though, because he sticks to the streets he misses the way that the fight back is being organised. Take the dodgy interstate gun dealers: it now turns out that most of them have continued in business using fraudulent public liability insurance. Take the insurance out of the picture and the gun shop closes too because it cannot claim to be an ordinary business. Strange takes a different approach - it's more dramatic but it's not as accurate.

Just pray that some kids like the Durham brothers or Horace McKinley are thinking of - and finding - ways out. That gun I saw on the train may not have been a machine gun - it could have been some modernistic rifle. It makes little difference to me. It makes little difference to my Swiss neighbour. We have jobs to go to, but the only way the gangbangers have to go is down.