The Barnes & Noble Review
Having completed his cycle of Nick Stefanos novels with 2000's Shame the Devil, George Pelecanos -- one of the classiest crime writers working in America today -- has now embarked on a brand-new series. The opening volume, Right as Rain, is set, like most of Pelecanos's fiction, in the gritty, violent milieu of contemporary Washington, D.C. Ostensibly a private-eye novel, Right as Rain is a serious, troubling work that deals with murder, drug abuse, racial tension, cultural identity, urban decay, and problematic personal relationships of every sort. Crime fiction rarely gets more ambitious, or provocative, than this.
Two very different figures dominate the narrative. The first is Derek Strange, a middle-aged black ex-policeman who has successfully operated his own detective agency (Strange Investigations) for nearly 30 years. The second is Terry Quinn, a young white man who resigned from the police force in the aftermath of a controversial shooting. In the final hours of a late-night patrol, Terry shot and killed an apparently crazed young black man who was holding a gun on an unarmed white man. The black man was later identified as off-duty policeman Chris Wilson. Right as Rain begins when Wilson's mother hires Strange to investigate the circumstances surrounding that shooting and to restore her son's good name.
Shortly afterward, Strange forms an unlikely alliance with Quinn. Their joint investigation takes them into the heart of the Washington drug culture and brings them into contact with a vivid array of characters on both sides of the law. Included among them are an insulated, untouchable drug lord named Cherokee Coleman; an assortment of policemen, corrupt and otherwise; and a pair of hapless redneck father-and-son drug mules that Elmore Leonard would be proud to call his own. They also encounter the
wretched inhabitants of a Washington "junkyard," a decaying tenement populated by burned-out, dying heroin addicts. One of the inhabitants is Sondra Wilson, Chris's hopelessly addicted sister. Sondra's story stands at the heart of the narrative and gradually illuminates the unanswered questions surrounding her brother's death.
Like Elmore Leonard's City Primeval, Right as Rain is a kind of latter-day urban western, played out against an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. It's exciting, moving, unsentimental fiction distinguished throughout by its bleak evocation of the darkest corners of the urban jungle, and by its subtle, carefully shaded portrayal of race relations in contemporary America.
If you haven't encountered George Pelecanos before, then please don't wait any longer. Right as Rain is an ideal place to begin.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).
Read an Excerpt
What Derek Strange was worried about, looking at Jimmy Simmons sitting there, spilling over a chair on the other side of his desk, was that Simmons was going to pick some of Strange's personal shit up off the desktop in front of him and start winging it across the room. Either that or get to bawling like a damn baby. Strange didn't know which thing he wanted to happen less. He had some items on that desk that meant a lot to him: gifts women had given him over the years, tokens of gratitude from clients, and a couple of Redskins souvenirs from back in the 1960s. But watching a man cry, that was one thing he could not take.
"Tell me again, Derek." Simmons's lip was trembling, and pools of tears were threatening to break from the corners of his bloodshot eyes. "Tell me again what that motherfucker looked like, man."
"It's all in the report," said Strange.
"I'm gonna kill him, see? And right after that, I'm gonna kill his ass again."
"You're talkin' no sense, Jimmy."
"Fifteen years of marriage and my woman's just now decided to go and start taking some other man's dick? You're gonna tell me now about sense? God-damn!"
Jimmy Simmons struck his fist to the desktop, next to a plaster football player with a spring-mounted head. The player, a white dude originally whose face Janine's son, Lionel, had turned dark brown with paint, wore the old gold trousers and burgundy jersey from back in the day, and he carried a football cradled in one arm. The head jiggled, and the Redskins toy tilted on its base. Strange reached over, grabbed the player, and righted it before it could tip over.
"Take it easy. You break that, I can't even charge you for it, 'cause it's priceless, hear?"
"I'm sorry, Derek." A tear sprang loose from Simmons's right eye and ran down one of his plump cheeks. "Shit."
"Here you go, man." Strange ripped a Kleenex from the box atop his desk and handed it to Simmons, who dabbed tenderly at his cheek. It was a delicate gesture for a man whose last day under three hundred pounds was a faded memory.
"I need to know what the man looked like," said Simmons. "I need to know his name."
"It's all in the report," Strange repeated, pushing a manila envelope across the desk. "But you don't want to be doing nothin' about it, hear?"
Simmons opened the envelope and inched out its contents slowly and warily, the way a child approaches an open casket for the first time. Strange watched Simmons's eyes as they moved across the photographs and the written report.
It hadn't taken Strange all that long to get the goods on Denice Simmons. It was a tail-and-surveillance job, straight up, the simplest, dullest, and most common type of work he did. He had followed Denice to her boyfriend's place over in Springfield, Virginia, on two occasions and waited on the street until she came out and drove back into D.C. The third time Strange had tailed her, on a Sunday night when Jimmy Simmons was up in Atlantic City at an electronics show, he had waited the same way, but Denice did not emerge from the man's apartment. The lights went out in the third-story window where the man lived, and this was all Strange needed. He filled out the paperwork in the morning, picked up the photographs he had taken to a one-hour shop, and called Jimmy Simmons to his office the same day.
"How long?" said Simmons, not looking up from the documents.
"Three months, I'd say."
"How you know that?"
"Denice got no other kind of business being over in Virginia, does she?"
"She works in the District. She's got no friends over in Virginia-"
"Your own credit card bills, the ones you supplied? Denice has been charging gas at a station over there by the Franconia exit for three, three and a half months. The station's just a mile down the road from our boy's apartment."
"You think she'd be smarter than that." Simmons nearly grinned with affection. "She never does like to pay for her own gas. Always puts it on the card so I'll have to pay, come bill time. She's tight with her money, see. Funny for a woman to be that way. And though she knows I'll be stroking the checks, she always has to stop for the cheapest gas, even if it means driving out of her way. I bet if you checked, you'd see they were selling gas at that station dirt cheap."
"Dollar and a penny for regular," said Strange.
Simmons rose from his chair, his belly and face quivering as if his flesh were being blown by a sudden gust of wind. "Well, I'll see you, Derek. I'll take care of your services, soon as I see a bill."
"Janine will get it out to you straightaway."
"Right. And thanks for the good work."
"Always hate it when it turns out like this, Jimmy."
Simmons placed a big hat with a red feather in its band on his big head. "You're just doing your job."
Strange sat in his office, waiting to hear Simmons go out the door. It would take a few minutes, as long as it took Simmons to flirt with Janine and for Janine to get rid of him. Strange heard the door close. He got out from behind his desk and put himself into a midlength black leather jacket lined with quilt and a thin layer of down. He took a PayDay bar, which Janine had bought for him, off the desk and slipped it into a pocket of the jacket.
Out in the reception area of the office, Strange stopped at Janine Baker's desk. Behind her, a computer terminal showed one of the Internet's many sites that specialized in personal searches. Janine's brightly colored outfit was set off against her dark, rich skin. Her red lipstick picked up the red of the dress. She was a pretty, middle-aged woman, liquid eyed, firm breasted, wide of hip, and lean legged.
"That was quick," he said.
"He wasn't his usual playful self. He said I was looking lovely today-"
Janine blushed. "But he didn't go beyond that. Didn't seem like his heart was all that in it."
"I just gave him the bad news about his wife. She was getting a little somethin'-somethin' on the side with this young auto parts clerk, sells batteries over at the Pep Boys in northern Virginia."
"How'd they meet? He see her stalled out on the side of the road or something?"
"Yeah, he's one of those good Samaritans you hear about."
"Pulled over to give her a jump, huh."
"This the same guy she was shackin' up with two years ago?"
"Different guy. Different still than the guy she was running with three years before that."
"What's he gonna do?"
"He went through the motions with me, telling me what he was going to do to that guy. But all's he'll do is, he'll make Denice suffer a little bit. Not with his hands, nothin' like that. Jimmy wouldn't touch Denice in that way. No, they'll be doing some kind of I'm Sorry ceremony for the next few days, and then he'll forgive her, until the next one comes along."
"Why's he stay with her?"
"He loves her. And I think she loves him, too. So I guess there's no chance for you and Big Jimmy. I don't think he'll be leaving any time soon."
"Oh, I can wait."
Strange grinned. "Give him a chance to fill out a little bit, huh?"
"He fills out any more, we'll have to put one of those garage doors on the front of this place just to let him in."
"He fills out any more, Fat Albert, Roseanne, Liz Taylor, and Sinbad gonna get together and start telling Jimmy Simmons weight jokes."
"He fills out any more-"
"Hold up, Janine. You know what we're doing right here?"
"It's called ëdoing the dozens.'"
"Uh-huh. White man on NPR yesterday, was talking about this book he wrote about African American culture? Said that doing the dozens was this thing we been doin' for generations. Called it the precursor of rap music."
"They got a name for it, for real? And here I thought we were just cracking on Jimmy."
"I'm not lying." Strange buttoned his coat. "Get that bill out to Simmons, will you?"
"I handed it to him as he was going out the door."
"You're always on it. I don't know why I feel the need to remind you." Strange nodded to one of two empty desks on either side of the room. "Where's Ron at?"
"Trying to locate that debtor, the hustler took that woman off for two thousand dollars."
"Old lady lives down off Princeton?"
"Uh-huh. Where you headed?"
"Off to see Chris Wilson's mom."
Strange walked toward the front door, his broad, muscled shoulders moving beneath the black leather, gray salted into his hair and closely cropped beard.
He turned as his hand touched the doorknob." You want something else?" He had felt Janine's eyes on his back.
"You need me, or if Ron needs me, I'll be wearin' my beeper."
Strange stepped out onto 9th Street, a short commercial strip between Upshur and Kansas, one spit away from Georgia Avenue. He smiled, thinking of Janine. He had met her the first time at a club ten years earlier, and he had started hitting it then because both of them wanted him to, and because it was there for him to take.
Janine had a son, Lionel, from a previous marriage, and this scared him. Hell, everything about commitment scared him, but being a father to a young man in this world, it scared him more than anything else. Despite his fears, their time together had seemed good for both Strange and Janine, and he had stayed with it, knowing that when it's good it's rare, and unless there's a strong and immediate reason, you should never give it up. The affair went on steadily for several months.
When he lost his office manager, he naturally thought of Janine, as she was out of work, bright, and a born organizer. They agreed that they would break off the relationship when she started working for him, and soon thereafter she went and got serious with another man. This was fine with him, a relief, as it had let him out the back door quietly, the way he always liked to go. That man exited Janine's life shortly thereafter.
Strange and Janine had recently started things up once again. Their relationship wasn't exclusive, at least not for Strange. And the fact that he was her boss didn't bother either of them, in the ethical sense. Their lovemaking simply filled a need, and Strange had grown attached to the boy as well. Friends warned him about shitting on the dining room table, but he was genuinely fond of the woman, and she did make his nature rise after all the years. He liked to play with her, too, let her know that he knew that she was still interested. It kept things lively in the deadening routine of their day-to-day.
Strange stood out on the sidewalk for a moment and glanced up at the yellow sign over the door: "Strange Investigations," the letters in half of both words enlarged inside the magnifying-glass illustration drawn across the lightbox. He loved that logo. It always made him feel something close to good when he looked up at that sign and saw his name.
He had built this business by himself and done something positive in the place where he'd come up. The kids in the neighborhood, they saw a black man turn the key on the front door every morning, and maybe it registered, put something in the back of their minds whether they realized it or not. He'd kept the business going for twenty-five years now, and the bumps in the road had been just that. The business was who he was. All of him, and all his.
STRANGE sat low behind the wheel of his white-over-black '89 Caprice, listening to a Blackbyrds tape coming from the box as he cruised south on Georgia Avenue. Next to him on the bench was a mini Maglite, a Rand McNally street atlas, and a Leatherman tool-in-one in a sheath that he often wore looped through his belt on the side of his hip. He wore a Buck knife the same way, all the time when he was on a job. A set of 10 X 50 binoculars, a cell phone, a voice-activated tape recorder, and extra batteries for his flashlights and camera were in the glove box, secured with a double lock. In the trunk of the car was a file carton containing data on his live cases. Also in the trunk was a steel Craftsman toolbox housing a heavy Maglite, a Canon AE-1 with a 500-millimeter lens, a pair of Russian-made NVD goggles, a 100-foot steel Craftsman tape measure, a roll of duct tape, and various Craftsman tools useful for engine and tire repair. When he could, Strange always bought Craftsman - the tools were guaranteed for life, and he tended to be hard on his equipment.
He drove through Petworth. In the Park View neighborhood he cut east on Irving, took Michigan Avenue past Children's Hospital and into Northeast, past Catholic U and down into Brookland.
Strange parked in front of Leona Wilson's modest brick home at 12th and Lawrence. He kept the motor running, waiting for the flute solo on "Walking in Rhythm" to end, though he could listen to it anytime. He'd come here because he'd promised Leona Wilson that he would, but he wasn't in any hurry to make this call.
Strange saw the curtain move in the bay window of Leona's house. He cut the engine, got out of his car, locked it down, and walked up the concrete path to Leona's front door. The door was already opening as he approached.
"Mrs. Wilson," he said, extending his hand.
Copyright (c) 2001 by George P. Pelecanos