Saturday, February 25, 2012

Another Gem from George Pelecanos

This is another excellent novel from George Pelecanos who demonstrates once again that he knows the seamier side of Washington, D.C. inside and out and can portray it better than anyone else. Even better are the characters who populate this novel--some good, some bad, some still making up their minds, but virtually all of them struggling in one way or another.

The main protagonist, Lorenzo Brown, once ran with a rough gang headed by his best boyhood friend. But after serving eight years in prison on a drug charge, Lorenzo is back on the street, determined to stay on the straight and narrow and make a new life for himself. He finds a job as a "dog man," working for the Humane Society, attempting to rescue mistreated dogs.

Lorenzo must report periodically to his parole officer, an attractive but troubled woman named Rachel Lopez. By day, Rachel is very conscientious and does her job well. But by night, she drinks too much and picks up strangers in hotel bars for rough sex. Outside of their scheduled sessions, Lorenzo and Rachel also occasionally run into each other at a mid-day meeting of a Narcotics Anonymous chapter.

Lorenzo is doing well, content in his humble job and steering clear of his former bad associates, when a simple mistake by a stupid gang banger threatens to set off a conflict between two of D.C.'s major drug lords, one of whom is still Lorenzo's friend. The incident threatens both Lorenzo and Rachel and forces Lorenzo to make an agonizing choice.

These characters are beautifully drawn and their story pulls you in from the first page. These are real people in a setting that is totally believable and flawed or not, you can't help but sympathize with virtually all of them. Certainly you won't soon forget them.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Doors Open

Ian Rankin's Doors Open is a stand-alone, set in Edinburgh that does not feature the author's long-time protagonist, John Rebus. It originally appeared as a weekly serial in the New York Times Magazine, and was perhaps inspired by Rankin's enthusiasm for heist films. (He lists ten of his favorite such movies at the end of the book.)

The book opens at an art auction where three friends meet. Not surprisingly, they all share an interest in fine art. Mike Mackenzie made a fortune with his software company, but after selling the company he finds himself bored and looking for some excitement in his life. Robert Gissing is an art professor who is miffed by the fact that so many pieces of great art are hidden away in private collections, unavailable to the general public. Alan Cruickshank is a successful banker with a taste for art that he can't afford.

Over drinks after the auction, Professor Gissing suggests that it would be enormous fun to "liberate" a few priceless works of art from the National Gallery's storage warehouse. Mike Mackenzie, in particular, is intrigued by the idea. He's rich enough to afford virtually any painting he might want, but he particularly covets a portrait that is in the Gallery's collection and that he knows will never come up for sale.

Before long, a discussion that apparently began as a light-hearted fantasy evolves into a serious plan to steal a handful of priceless paintings from the Gallery. Mackenzie brings into the scheme an old high school mate who has grown up to become a local crime boss, and the game is on.

The men construct what they hope will be a fool-proof scheme to steal the paintings without getting caught. But as complicated as the plan is and with as many people as there are involved in its execution, the potential for disaster looms large.

This is a very enjoyable book with lots of twists and turns. It's not as dark as most of the books in the Rebus series, and fans of great heist movies like "The Thomas Crown Affair" will probably enjoy reading it almost as much as Ranking obviously enjoyed writing it.