Sunday, January 6, 2008

Drama City by George Pelecanos - Book Review

Drama City opens as Lorenzo Brown awakens in his plain but clean flat, gets dressed, and takes his dog Jasmine out for a walk, being sure to bring a plastic bag along to pick up Jasmine’s business. On his return he does his exercises, but no longer with the intensity he once did them during his eight years in prison. At the same time Rachel Lopez wakes in her bed and gets ready for work while fighting something of a hangover. She puts on clothes which hide her figure well. As she leaves for work she picks up file folders, her keys, and her badge, admiring herself in the mirror before leaving for work. With such simple, plain details George Pelecanos sets in motion another one of his fine crime novels set in the seedy, drug infested world of Washington, D.C.

Pelecanos is the author of fourteen crime novels, of which Drama City is the thirteenth. There are a couple of trilogies, starting with the Nick Stefanos stories about Greek-Americans interacting with blacks in a multi-ethnic D.C. He also has written a series of novels featuring Derek Strange, a Washington police detective who discovers new maturity and strength as the series develops. There is a novel set in the early forties giving the back story for Nick Stefanos, but it seems to be out of print. Recently he has written more stand alone novels as his voice has become ever stronger and his sense of character and plot have become richer. He’s a master of dialogue and the telling detail, perhaps because he’s become such a fine film writer. Pelecanos is one of the writers and co-producer of HBO’s The Wire, without a doubt the finest piece of television drama ever. Drama City has much the same kind of foreboding atmosphere as The Wire as well as the sharply drawn characters whose lives have bleak pasts and even bleaker futures. Pelecanos' writing is gritty and often violent, but his violence takes on a certain beauty and life of its own, fully fitting into the environment he creates for it.

Pelecanos frames his narratives with music, and not music I’m familiar with. His characters love the music reflecting their character and backgrounds – jazz, rap, soul, rock, punk, and more. The music his characters hear reflects their world, and even though I don’t know the sounds, their music makes the world more familiar to me, too. Mostly it’s a pretty hopeless world peopled with drug dealers, addicts, crooked cops, and just plain people trying to stay straight in a difficult world. Lorenzo and Rachel are just such people. The story of their struggle to keep their dignity and survive in a world where many don’t make it forms the kernel of this gripping tale. Pelecanos has been well recognized as a master story teller, and this novel is hugely satisfying. There were times during my reading I had to set the book aside and take a walk because the tension had become so great. If you haven’t read Pelecanos yet, you need to. You won’t regret it.

Published by Little Brown at $24.95 and now available in paperback everywhere.