Sunday, March 21, 2010

D.C. Noir

George Pelecanos owns Washington, D .C. in the same way that Raymond Chandler once owned Los Angeles. In a series of books, many of them featuring his protagonist, Derek Strange, Pelecanos has mined the city's dark side for riveting stories that often also highlight the pathologies that afflict it.

Shoedog is an early (1994) stand-alone that features a young drifter named Constantine, who's traveled the world and now finds himself hitchhiking outside of his native Washington, D.C. He accepts a ride from an older man named Polk, who is heading to Florida and encourages Constantine to go along. Polk just has to make one quick stop and then they'll be on their way.

Any reader of noir fiction will immediately understand, that "the one quick stop" will inevitably lead to trouble, and as a consequence, the young drifter finds himself recruited into a gang of minor thugs who are planning a couple of armed robberies. Constantine goes along for the ride, in part because he feels some sympathy for Polk, in part because he has nothing better to do, and in part because he has fallen for the attractive young woman who belongs to the gang's boss.

The situation immediately becomes combustible and explodes into violence, leading to a shattering conclusion. As in all of Pelecanos's work, the writing is crisp; the characters and the D.C. settings are perfectly drawn, and the music is evocative. For those who have enjoyed his later work, the reissue of Shoedog offers a glimpse of a younger Pelecanos just hitting his stride.

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