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From Barnes & NobleMichael Connelly has called George Pelecanos "the best-kept secret in crime fiction," and he may very well be right. Pelecanos’s eight novels -- the most recent of which, Shame the Devil, has just arrived in bookstores -- are grittily authentic reflections of the violent, volatile society of Washington, DC, from the depression era to the present, and they have thus far made their author more of a cult figure than a household name. Famous or not, George Pelecanos is very, very good. He is one of a handful of young writers -- Connelly, Walter Mosley, Don Winslow, and Dennis Lehane also come to mind -- who are adding their own personal stamp to the established traditions of the crime genre and are redefining that genre for a new generation of readers.
Shame the Devil, which brings together a host of characters, major and minor, from earlier Pelecanos novels, opens on a sweltering July day in 1995. Two hardened ex-cons (Frank Farrow and Roman Otis) and one frightened amateur (Frank’s young brother, Richard) attempt to rob a Washington restaurant called May’s, with disastrous results. May’s is both a neighborhood pizza parlor and the collection point for a lucrative, small-time bookie operation. When the bagman for the operation, Carl Lewin, foolishly pulls a gun, the holdup rapidly becomes a bloodbath.
Carl Lewin is killed first, shot down by Frank Farrow. The three witnesses to that killing -- a waiter, a bartender, and a pizza chef -- are then summarily executed. After that, things continue to deteriorate. A passing policeman, William Jonas, hears the shots and arrives on the scene. In the ensuing shoot-out, Jonas kills Richard Farrow and is himself seriously wounded. Frank Farrow and Roman Otis manage to escape, but in the process they run down a five-year-old boy named Jimmy Karras, killing him instantly. Jimmy is the son of Dimitri Karras, hero of King Suckerman and The Sweet Forever, and he is one of several spirits who will dominate the background of this haunted, haunting book.
The brutal opening sequence occupies perhaps 20 pages. But, in a very real sense, everything that happens afterward is nothing more than the extended aftermath of that one crucial morning. At the end of his account of what will eventually be termed "the Pizza Parlor Murders," Pelecanos jumps across two and a half years of subsequent history, taking us to July 1998, and into the deeply unsettled lives of the friends and relatives of the various victims. Four of these people have come together to form an unofficial support group, which now meets weekly in the basement of a local church. Two of its members -- Bernie Walters and Dimitri Karras -- have lost their sons. One, Stephanie Maroulis, has lost her husband. The fourth member, Thomas Wilson, is carrying a double burden: He lost his oldest friend on the morning of the murders and is also harboring a guilty secret that is slowly eating him alive.
Pelecanos filters his narrative through the constantly shifting perspectives of these four characters and a significant number of others. Among these others are William Jonas, the paralyzed ex-policeman who was the only survivor of the May’s restaurant massacre; Frank Farrow and Roman Otis, who have unfinished business with Jonas and his family; and Nick Stefanos, the bartender/investigator who is the central figure of a number of Pelecanos novels, including A Firing Offense, Nick's Trip and Down By the River Where the Dead Men Go. Nick will play a crucial double role in this narrative. In his capacity as investigator for the Washington Public Defender’s Office, he uncovers some previously unknown facts about the 1995 killings and becomes a reluctant participant in the novel’s violent denouement. In his role as bartender for a local bar-and-grill called The Spot, he offers Dimitri Karras a part-time job and helps Karras begin the process of reconnecting with the world.
Shame the Devil is a moving, immensely readable novel that operates successfully on a number of levels. First of all, it is a tense, intelligent, well-constructed thriller. Second, it is a novel of character, illuminating the lives of a wide variety of people -- small-time hustlers, psychopathic killers, angst-ridden parents, alcoholic cops, and abused housewives -- with the ease and assurance of a born novelist. Most centrally, it is a novel about grief, guilt, and personal redemption, and it has much to say about the indelible effects of violence on victims and survivors and about the ongoing struggle to find some shred of meaning in a harsh, often predatory, universe. By whatever standards you care to apply, Shame the Devil is a first-rate work of fiction. It deserves the attention of genre aficionados and of serious, discriminating readers of every sort.