Many white writers have used black characters in their fiction, but none as consistently and convincingly as George Pelecanos.
The first really successful book about a black cop was "In the Heat of the Night" by John Ball, who, in spite of creating the iconic Virgil Tibbs, was an excruciatingly bad writer, his prose more wooden than Sherwood Forest. He had a terrific idea for a novel, assigning a black policeman down South to work with a redneck sheriff, and sent it off to the greatest mystery editor who ever lived, Joan Kahn. She painstakingly worked with Ball to rewrite again and again, finally pulling a book out of him that was good enough to win the Edgar Allan Poe Award. It then became a motion picture starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger that was a colossal hit.
Ball sent the sequel to Kahn who, again, required him to do a great deal of rewriting. Ball agreed to do some but refused to do any heavy lifting, reminding her that he was so talented that he'd won an Edgar. He never had another successful book and his career sailed away, carrying him back into the obscurity from which he had briefly surfaced.
By far the most successful white author with a black protagonist is James Patterson, whose Alex Cross novels sell in the stratospheric millions. Cross, however, doesn't seem any more black than Malibu surfers — he works in a largely white environment with white colleagues, chasing white bad buys.
By contrast, the majority of the characters in the new novel by Mr. Pelecanos, "The Night Gardener" (Little, Brown, 371 pages, $24.95), are black, and they seem pretty authentic to me. Now, I confess, I wouldn't really know. I'm white, live in a white neighborhood, and work in the largely white profession of publishing. But I believe his characters, their dialogue, and their points of view.
Years ago, I asked Elmore Leonard how he was able to replicate the speech of the low-life Hispanic, black, and white street thugs and drug dealers so perfectly. He responded, "How do you know I do? Do you know a lot of guys like that?" "No, of course not," I said. "Well," he said, "neither do I. I make it up."
Mr. Pelecanos makes it up, too, I guess, but there is a tone of truth that would not allow anyone to doubt that there are folks like this in the Washington, D.C., area in which he lives and about which he writes, and that they dress, speak, eat, worry, fight, drink, and work just as he shows them. A writer's writer, admired by the best of his peers, in "The Night Gardener" he has again managed to produce prose that resonates long after the reader has closed the covers and turned out the light.
His scenes set in bars (I just couldn't write "bar scenes") are perfect — and I can vouch for them personally. In one, friends are "three rounds deep into a discussion" about a sexy actress, a football player, and a car, "their points argued with vehemence, but all of it, in the end, about nothing at all. The conversation was something to hang the alcohol on. You couldn't just sit there and drink."
"The Night Gardener" is a big book, with a large cast of characters and numerous story lines that require you to pay attention. The cops, the crooks, the victims, and their families all eventually intersect, often in surprising ways.
The most prominent of the many players are three cops. T.C. Cook was a colorful and legendary crime fighter back in the day whose success rate in solving crimes was 90% — dramatically higher than anyone on the force; Dan "Doc" Holiday, a rookie when he met Cook, went on to become a very good cop but got caught outside the lines and quit rather than deal with the consequences; and Gus Ramone, the moral axis around whom spin those close to him: his family, other cops, victims and those affected by crimes.
In the 1980s, several young people are murdered after having been violated. Shot to death, then undressed, bathed, redressed, and dropped near a community garden without a hint of a clue, each victim had a first name that could be read the same forward and backward — Eve, Otto, and Ava — so the press naturally labeled them "The Palindrome Murders."
Cook, with 24 years on the force, caught the case but, when the killings stopped, had no more trails to follow and retired, leaving it unsolved. When Asa, a teenage friend of Ramone's son, is found shot to death near a community garden 20 years later, the parallels with the earlier murders are too strong to be dismissed, so Cook and Holiday are pulled back into a case that has haunted them for 20 years.
There are many more characters, and enough subplots to fill a shelf, but they remain clear and distinguishable, enhancing the prime adventure. Mr. Pelecanos, for all his undeniable skill as a creator of first-rate detective stories, is, even more important, a novelist who can make the relationships between a police officer and his family just as compelling as the mystery.
When the police learn of a black teenager who was shot to death, their experience leads them to callously assume it's drug-related, "what some D.C. cops openly called ‘society cleanses.' Darwinism put in motion by those in the life."
Later, a man has been informed that his nephew has been shot to death. Gus Ramone knew the boy slightly and has a beer with his uncle. As they step out of the bar, a gentle rain falls. "‘God's cryin,'" the uncle says, "his voice not much more than a whisper.To Ramone, it was only rain."
Cold? No. Not even the outrageously talented George Pelecanos can help us know what police officers have to face every day, and how they can live with it while retaining their sanity.
Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and the series editor of the annual "Best American Mystery Stories." He can be reached at [email protected].