As the writer for HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme”, George Pelecanos’ reputation is impeccable.
His style is succinct, polished. And he is as skilled at drawing intense, vivid scenes as he is at casting a wide story arc, allowing characterization to take centre stage.
His Lucas Spero mysteries showcase all of these talents.
The first in the series, The Cut (2011), introduces Lucas, a young veteran who has returned from tour in Iraq and now works as a P.I. in Washington.
“I woke up one day and knew that I was never gonna have a college degree or wear a tie to work. I was coming up on thirty years old and I realized, I’ve fallen through the cracks. But I’m luckier than some people I know. I’ve found something I like to do. My eyes open in the morning and I have purpose.”
Even his inner musings read as easily as dialogue. (And Pelecanos’ dialogue is spot-on.)
And within just a few pages, readers have a cursory understanding of the significant relationships in Lucas’ life: with the city that he loves, his current employer, his mother, his brother, and his lover.
The pacing is swift and the prose is deliberate.
When Lucas’ brother Leo teaches contemporary fiction, he chooses writers who will appeal to the young black men in his class, and the qualities their works possess are evident in George Pelecanos’ writing as well.
Both Leo and the boys admire “…the author’s use of dialogue, how it illustrated character and moved the plot forward; how the central conflict of the novel was set up economically in the early chapters; how the protagonist, Ryan, struggled with alcoholism, and how his problem was handled with subtlety and grace.”
And the observation made about one of the main characters in a detective novel, “Parker is a man of action…defined by what he does rather than what he says” seems to suit Lucas as much as this other fictional man.
Lucas, too, has a struggle, but not it is not alcoholism.
Readers are aware of its existence in The Cut, although there is little examination of it. That, too, is significant.
For the one aspect of Lucas’ life which is core to his identity – his work as a soldier – is the one aspect about which readers know next-to-nothing.
Readers learn only a little more in the follow-up, The Double (2013).
As with The Cut, it opens with a discussion between Lucas and his employer, Tom Petersen.
It’s an interesting approach, because this exhibits Lucas’ formal relationship to a world which is starkly different from the world of military combat.
“Petersen looked at Lucas, a marine veteran of Iraq who had fought in Fallujah, where the fiercest house-to-house combat of the war, perhaps any war, had occurred. A man who’d left his youth in the Middle East and come back looking for a replication of what he had experienced there every day: a sense of purpose and heightened sensation.”
But although Lucas works regularly for Petersen, the grit and muck of the stories comes from the cases he accepts which are not discussed in Petersen’s office.
The setting works well for character introduction, however, and because Petersen, reputable and recognizable in his business attire observes and accepts Lucas, readers are inclined to do so as well.
From Petersen’s perspective Spero presents as an “aw-shucks kind of guy” but one with a “look just as studied” as Petersen’s nonetheless.
But it is his observations of Lucas emotionally that offer the readers more insight.
“Petersen sensed that there were night-black shadows beneath the surface of his investigator’s cool façade. He was fond of Lucas, at times close to fatherly, but in personal matters, out of respect, Petersen didn’t push him.”
Both The Cut and The Double are Lucas’ stories.
Only brief glimpses of him from the perspectives of minor characters, like Petersen and Olivia O’Leary acquaint readers with an external view of the novels’ hero.
Olivia O’Leary is a psychiatric therapist who works at the hospital at which some of the men he served with are being treated.
When Lucas inquires about a fellow serviceman’s health, we also gain some insight into Lucas himself.
“’A relative few are as fortunate as you’ve been, Spero. You’ve found work that approximates the exhilaration of the experience you had in the Middle East. Most don’t have that. Coming home can be a relief, peaceful even. But after a while, when things stateside don’t turn out like they’ve imagined, soldiers often feel a disappointment, a kind of void. Those feelings turn to bitterness and hurt. I’m not telling you that this is what’s going on with Winston, specifically. I’m speaking in generalities, of course.”
And, when Leo is concerned about his brother Lucas’ health, readers have yet another glimpse of the kind of trouble that Lucas might be dealing with, the struggle which might parallel that other fictional hero’s experience.
“’I’ve been reading stuff, Spero. About all the veterans who’ve been committing suicide. It’s up to one a day now. That’s a higher rate than the combat deaths in Afghanistan this year.’”
The reason that it’s possible to speak at length about these books without discussing any of the plot therein is that the series is fundamentally rooted in Lucas Spero’s character.
The cases he solves are interesting and the action is gripping (sometimes violent, but not gratuitously, matter-of-factly, which suits Lucas’ experience).
His relationships with women create the opportunity for action-scenes of another sort entirely, which are sketched just as boldly.
And with both kinds of action, George Pelecanos is prepared to get messy in terms of characterization; he inhabits the grey-space between black and white.
Sign me up for the next Lucas Spero mystery.
Have you read either of these? Or others of his?