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.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Worth Looking For: California Fire and Life

Browsing the shelves of the Poisoned Pen, my favorite mystery bookstore, I recently found a reprint of Don Winslow's 1999 novel, California Fire and Life. Winslow's The Power of the Dog is one of my favorite books of all time, and I've thoroughly enjoyed everything else of his that I've read. This is an earlier book, but it's an excellent read that will also teach you everything you ever wanted to know about arson investigation.

In an effort to protect a witness from certain death, Orange County Sheriff's Department arson investigator Jack Wade fabricated evidence and then lied under oath. Betrayed by a fellow deputy, "Accidently" Bently, Jack is convicted of perjury and bounced from the department.

Twelve years later, Jack is a claims investigator for California Fire and Life. A multi-million dollar home and furniture collection belonging to a Russian immigrant, Nicky Vale, goes up in smoke. Sadly, Nicky's beautiful young wife goes up along with it. Jack's old nemisis, "Accidently" spends about fifteen minutes investigating and rules the fire accidental.

Jack's investigation quickly points to a lot of problelms with Bently's verdict, including the fact that the victim had no smoke in her lungs. Beyond that, Jack finds the family dog locked outside of the house, and Jack knows full well that, while an arsonist might burn up his wife, he will never burn his dog along with her.

It's clear to Jack that the fire was deliberately set. Nicky Vale claims to have a solid alibi--he was home with Mama all night. But Jack quickly breaks the alibi and discovers that Nicky had the means, motive and opportunity to set the blaze. Jack denies the claim, only to discover that this sets him in conflict not only with Nicky Vale but with his own employer as well.

From that point on, the book is a wild ride with Jack battling Russian mobsters, Vietnamese hoods, insurance scammers, and the executives of California Fire and Life. Don't expect to get any sleep until you've finished the book.