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Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Double by George Pelecanos

Little, Brown and Company, 304 pages, $26 (release date 10/8/13)

George Pelecanos doesn't want you to make any mistakes about the scenes he sets. His characters are defined in detail: what clothes they wear, what food they eat, and especially what sports they watch and music they hear. Pelecanos describes where his characters sit, meet, and confront if it will give your mind's eye a three-dimensional sense of his story. (Also, he's helpfully blocking out his story in case someone wants to film it.)

The Double is a follow-up to The Cut, in which we first met Spero Lucas, a private investigator in D.C.  Spero comes from a colorful family. He was adopted, as were two of his three siblings, by a Greek couple. One of his brothers-by-another-mother is black. Another brother is a criminal. His only sister, and the sole biological child of the Greek couple, has moved far away and doesn't relate to anyone in the family. Spero is 31 years old, ex-military, and finds a lot of women to keep him warm but hasn't had a steady relationship with any of them.

Tom Petersen is a criminal defense attorney who routinely hires Lucas. He is trying to get a client free of a charge of murdering his ex-girlfriend. Lucas must find some sort of hole in the prosecution's story.  But this is not Pelecanos's main storyline. On the side, Lucas has taken on the recovery of a stolen painting.

For a 40% recovery fee, Lucas will find what is lost. This is how he supplements his income from Peterson. Grace Kincaid's ex-lover left her and took a valuable painting with him. Lucas soon learns that her boyfriend, Billy Hunter, was really a man named Billy King and he was part of a gang of hustlers. Lucas has his own gang of ex-military men he uses when he needs an assist.

Pelecanos's books are very much "man books." Women show up, sometimes in major parts, as does Charlotte Rivers, Lucas's love/lust interest in this book, but Pelecanos's brush doesn't paint them with the same depth of understanding as his male characters.

Pelecanos also has a "manly style." This passage, written about how Spero Lucas gives his used books to injured vets, applies to Pelecanos's writing as well:

…recovering vets enjoyed a good story told with clean, efficient writing, a plot involving a problem to be solved or surmounted, and everyday characters the reader could relate to. Today Lucas had crime novels by Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, and James Crumley…

Although Pelecanos's books are gritty and tough, he takes time for a little humor. The man Lucas finds who might cast doubt on Petersen's client's guilt is an auto mechanic who is also a killer for hire. A mechanic, get it, "'As in The Mechanic, with Charles Bronson,'" a character says.

The Double is the name of the painting that Grace has lost. Not to be a spoilsport or anything, but Grace eventually explains that The Double is two pictures of the same man, portraying "man's complex nature." Lucas's complex nature is the real subject of The Double. He has his own code of honor, his own morality. War has taught him how to kill. Men come away from war fractured in different ways. Has Lucas come away fairly intact, or are the cracks finally starting to show? That's the take-away from The Double.

As with most of George Pelecanos's books, the reward for the reader is in how he tells his story. He has Style. He asks big questions, hidden among the scenes of realistic bang-bang, blood, and ka-pow. It's also about seeing the grit of men who want to "stay in the game, " who have enough "steel." In The Double, Pelecanos has distilled his story to its essence.*

* At the same time, let me quietly give a hand clap to what appears to be an extraneous detail. Various characters in The Double ask the people they are interviewing how to spell names. Yay! It bugs me to no end when a TV or movie detective takes notes and never asks for the spelling of a name. How does he or she know whether it's Chumley, Chomley, or Cholmondeley? Right?

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