When you have read and enjoyed an author for a number of years, as I have with George Pelecanos, there comes a time to take stock and ponder a bit on just what it is that you enjoy so much about his books.
With Pelecanos the first element to mention is the realism which underlies all his books, their characters and their story lines. No plot is implausible and no character stretches the bounds of believable. That is certainly true of Pelecanos’ roster of Washington DC heroes, and over the years there have been quite a few. No doubt it was that capacity to portray characters in fine detail which was one of his many contributions to The Wire. The characters spring from a variety of backgrounds which most crime fiction writers would deem too ordinary to draw on – the short order clerk in the local Greek restaurant or the warehouseman in the electrical storeroom. For Pelecanos the characters and the stories come from every quarter of the streets behind the White House.
Spero Lucas was introduced in The Cut, a couple of years back, and makes a welcome return in The Double. Like many of his generation he served in the marines, returning from the wastes of Iraq and Afghanistan only to find their future blighted by a mix of economic depression and federal budget cuts. But whilst Spero has returned with all limbs intact and can pursue his activities as a private detective the war years have left their mental scares. Not that he is overly bitter. He has been luck compared with friends who did leave limbs behind and bridle, quite rightly, when lauded with complimentary tickets at baseball or football stadium, called heroes over the tannoys, and fist bumped by those who stayed at home and made millions who can reward the heroes with well-paid jobs, but don’t.
Pelecanos mines this social context with finesses bringing out all its peculiar niceties. The Double, takes as a starting point the way different people respond to the difficulties brought on by the economic meltdown. Spero and his cohort are no angels they do have some fingers in the less than legal sectors of the economy. But for all the bum cards they have been dealt, they are still essentially good people. Lined up against them are the ones who are fundamentally bad and have been that way for most of their lives. One of that category has conned a woman friend of a friend of Spero’s out of a valuable painting (The Double) having played the gigolo to get into her life, her bed and her affections. He’s backed by a couple of other ne’erdowells who resort to almost every available criminal activity in the hope of pulling off the big one.
Finding out who has the painting doesn’t take much time or effort. It’s getting it back which raises the big problems and the greater issues. But it’s not all hard work for Spero. Along the way he is picked up in a bar by a wealthy and beautiful Washington lobbyist who makes it plain from the start that she is married and only wants Spero for his charm and athleticism in the bedroom. That’s ok by him, at first…but it raises, with time, the suspicion that he may be no better than the gigolo he is hunting. Not the sort of story which fuels most crime fiction. But that’s the enduring joy of George Pelecanos, he doesn’t serve up the usual fare.