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Posts Tagged ‘Washington D.C.’

CUT by George Pelecanos: Book Review

Returning war veteran Spero Lucas is trying to find himself after Iraq. He knows he doesn’t want a nine-to-five job, doesn’t want to return to college, doesn’t want a complex romantic relationship, at least not now.  So what does he want?

While trying to figure that out, Spero takes a job as an unlicensed investigator for a D.C. attorney.  The attorney’s client, Anwan Hawkins, is awaiting trial for selling drugs, but Anwan doesn’t appear to be worried about that.  What he’s worried about is two packages of drugs that have disappeared while under the care of his two subordinates.

Anwan has a scheme going that has worked well until now.  His suppliers send him the drugs via FedEx, to homes that Anwan has previously scouted out as being unoccupied during the day.  The packages are left on porches and are tracked on the Internet by Anwan’s associates; within five minutes of the deliveries they’re picked up.  The owners of the homes never even realize that packages were delivered to their houses; after all, they didn’t order anything.  A foolproof scheme, it would seem, except that these two boxes have been intercepted.

Spero’s cut is forty percent, which in this case would amount to fifty-two thousand dollars per package, not too shabby for what he thinks will be a job that’s not too difficult.  He meets Anwan’s two business associates, young men in their late teens or early twenties–Tavon Lynch and Edwin Davis.

What Spero finds hard to understand is how Anwan’s scenario has unraveled since he’s been jailed. If, as Tavon tells Spero, no one other than himself and Edwin knew about the package deliveries, which they were following via a GPS, how did someone manage to steal the boxes in less than the five minutes it took Tavon and Edwin to get to the houses?

Spero starts investigating and finds a young man who may be a witness to one of the highjackings.  He’s Ernest Lindsay, a student at the high school where Spero’s brother teaches.  When Spero attempts to interview him, Ernest bolts.  But encouraged by Spero’s brother, Ernest agrees to talk to Spero and tell him about the FedEx package he saw taken from a neighbor’s porch.

In Cut, George Pelecanos has introduced an interesting, nuanced protagonist. There’s much to admire about Spero–his devotion to his mother and respect for his brother, his admiration for his late father, and his insistence on seeing the job he was hired for through to the end, even though Anwan tells him he’s done his best and should let it go.  On the other hand, Spero has some less-than-admirable characteristics–his casual approach to the women in his life, his disregard for the law when it suits his purpose.  How much of Spero’s behavior can be attributed to the things he saw in Iraq is hard to know, but that experience certainly had an influence on him.

There’s definitely a wonderful sense of place in this novel. As the author has Spero drive around the capital you can follow him from street to street, almost as if there were a map on the book’s pages.  The scenes of the two young gangsters, in over their heads in an underworld they don’t understand, are extremely well done; even though these two men have broken numerous laws, there’s still a sense of sympathy for the plight in which they find themselves.  They think they’re tough, but they’re babes in the woods compared to others out there.

You can read more about George Pelecanos at his web site.

DRINK THE TEA by Thomas Kaufman: Book Review

A foster child without a name or birthdate.  A man who may or may not have fathered a child.  A missing young woman. They all come together in this fast-paced, hard-boiled mystery by Thomas Kaufman.

Willis Gidney, a name he made up himself, has had a tough life. Abandoned by his parents as an infant, he spent years in foster homes and state institutions that might have been found between the pages of a Charles Dickens novel.  The only thing that saved him from a life of crime was the intervention of a Washington, D.C. police captain.

During his first ten years Willis learned to lie, steal, play truant, and fight.  During his years with Captain Shadrack Davies, he learned to love books, slowly developed a moral code, and found a career for himself.

Now Willis is trying to make it as a private detective on the tough streets of our capital; Willis thinks its initials stand for Dysfunctional City. He’s approached by an old friend, jazz saxophonist Steps Jackson, to find a young woman Jackson may or may not have fathered twenty-five years ago.

Willis manages to track down the woman whom Jackson says is the mother of the young woman he’s looking for.  Collette Andrews, the woman who had a one-night affair with Steps Jackson, is now cool, beautiful, married to a wealthy State Department diplomat, and refusing to acknowledge that she’s the mother of Bobbie Jackson.  She demands that Willis leave her house.  A few hours later she calls Willis, saying she needs to talk to him, but when he arrives at her house the police are there and she’s dead.  And Willis is under arrest.

There’s a lot of plot in this debut novel. The agri conglomerates come in for bashing, as do corrupt congressmen, suspect political donations, inept or uncaring welfare officials, and mysterious “abandoned” city rental properties that are using extraordinary amounts of electricity each month.

And then there are the mobsters who first try to cajole, then threaten and beat up Willis, and finally try to force him off the road.  He’s used to the hard-knock life, but this is getting out of hand.

On the positive side, there’s a new romantic interest in his life. Lillian McClellan, cyber sleuth, wears her hair in dreads, has dimples, and smells of sandalwood.  Who could resist?  Willis tries for a while, but it’s a lost cause; he’s smitten.

Thomas Kaufman is an Emmy award-winning cinematographer, and I’m guessing he likes short, quick shots because that’s how he writes.  It can get a bit confusing, as Drink the Tea goes back and forth from Willis’ childhood to the present and back again, all in the same chapter.   It can be frustrating when you’re trying to find the name of a character who appeared in a scene several chapters back or trying to remember just how a particular minor character is related to Willis.

But that’s a small quibble about a very well-written, fast-moving novel.  It is not, however, a book for those who like cozies; it’s more a book that will make you shake your head about the cruelties people inflict on each other. Drink the Tea won the PWA’s (Private Eye Writers of America) award for the Best First Private Eye Novel in 2010.

You can read more about Thomas Kaufman at his web site.