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by George P. Pelecanos
Little, Brown & Company, March 2003
343 pages
ISBN: 0316608432

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

For Pelecanos fans, in this book Derek Strange and Nick Stefanos become acquainted, and what they do together at the end is well worth the ride.

For others, this book is about as bleak and hardboiled as fiction gets. Derek Strange runs a Washington, D.C., detective agency, and what he's seen has left permanent bruises all over his psyche. Broken people crowd his life and these pages-people who never caught a break, de facto orphans who never had a parent who could or would care, ugly people who bear the brunt of others' derision, covetous people who think they'll be happy with costlier worldly goods, teenagers playing video games with real guns, unimaginative people with no compassion. Derek Strange has seen it all and takes responsibility for more than his share of the bad.

In the main plot line, he's working for an attorney representing a crime boss and intent on digging up, if not exculpatory evidence, then evidence enough to raise doubts, create sympathy, and give the client life in prison instead of a death sentence. But the defense is screwed before they begin because the feds are in charge and impaneling a death-qualified jury. In real life, Attorney General Ashcroft last week demanded his U.S. attorneys in the Northeast seek death sentences in a slew of cases they hadn 't deemed appropriate; in the book, the prosecution rejects prospective jurors who won't say they'll demand death for the accused.

As Derek Strange follows clues and tips, we encounter disconcerting quantities of zombie addicts, slightly bent cops, really bent ex-cops, young men on the make gunning down others like them to control the drug trade, young women fighting to preserve their children, and guys who make a living selling phony drugs to suburban wannabes. Yet, in Pelecanos's hands, none of these people is the Other; the most minor and despicable character is a real person we hope will live and thrive, given a little luck or a change of heart. And everywhere rays of light try to break through the noir. A thug tells himself he will not allow harm to a toddler as his boss intimidates the boy's mother. A kids' sports team keeps them off the street and gives teenage coaches fathering practice. A lost boy finds a safe home with his straight-arrow uncle. Derek Strange has found himself a wife and a stepson and a dog to love. And the agency's illuminated sign is a beacon on the street.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. Lots of people die. Others betray and are betrayed. When the toilet backs up in an abandoned house, slob drug dealers use the bathtub, which proves to be a perfect hiding place for drugs and guns.

This is also not a book for the hard of heart. The curse brought down on Washington by Virginia's relaxed gun-purchase laws is clear. The venom of the Department of Justice is evident, as is the stranglehold on the city by those the citizens cannot take part in electing.

It is for people who want to be wrung dry by a good story and great characters, while they see Iverson weaving through traffic in the paint and hear the Reverend Al Green serenade the world.

Reviewed by Joy Matkowski, February 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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