Monday, February 24, 2020

Shame the Devil by George Pelecanos

I knew of George Pelecanos long before I read him. He, along with Dennis Lehane and Richard Price, was one of the crime novelists who worked on The Wire. I loved novels by both Lehane and Price, so I finally gave Pelecanos a shot a couple years ago. I read Shoedog and the first three volumes of his DC Quartet, of which Shame the Devil is the closer. Shoedog, a standalone novel (with minor characters that show up in the Quartet), and The Sweet Forever, the third in the series, were both great novels. The Big Blowdown and King Suckerman were also very good. Shoedog feels like an homage to the Beats mixed with noir. In the DC Quartet Pelecanos is attempting to provide a history of DC. To give DC to the world like Joyce did Dublin, Ellroy did LA, Lehane did Boston and so many writers have tried to do for New York. The Big Blowdown is set in the 40’s and reads like a classic noir of that era. King Suckerman moves to the 70’s, The Sweet Forever to the 80’s, and Shame the Devil the 90’s. Different characters play different roles of varying sizes in the books. Each could stand alone, but together they add up to a great history of several families whose stories intertwine over the decades, aging with the city. Whether they capture DC, I’ll leave to people who know the city well; I will say that to these outside eyes they do have a consistent sense of place.

Shame the Devil begins with a crime gone horribly wrong in the early 90’s. What should have been a quick robbery of a pizza shop goes sideways; four people were killed in the shop, a policeman who happened on the scene was permanently disabled (after killing one of the criminals), and the young son of Dimitri Karras (a character who appeared in the previous novels) was hit and killed by the getaway car. The story picks up several years later and follows the support group comprised of the family members of those killed in the robbery. The robbery remains unsolved and is occasionally brought up in the consciousness of the city. But as time has passed, the criminals feel comfortable enough to return to town with revenge for the killing of the brother in mind. Private detective and bartender Nick Stefanos (the subject of a previous trilogy by Pelecanos and a character in the earlier Quartet books) investigates a separate case in which he stumbles across the killers. In the early going, Shame the Devil is more a novel about grief as the members of the support group begin to get their lives back on track after years of work. The third act turns the action back up and brings the book and series to a close in good noir fashion.

Ellroy’s LA Quartet comes to mind, but I think I prefer these (with the caveat I have not yet read White Jazz). The Big Nowhere is a masterpiece, but so is The Sweet Forever. Ellroy may be the slightly better prose writer, but his nihilism is unrelenting, whereas Pelecanos does let a little light and ambiguity in (which is not to say these aren’t bleak books). I didn’t like Shame the Devil as well as its predecessors, but it is very good, and a fitting ending to the series. I have quite a few other Pelecanos novels on the shelf, and I’m very much looking forward to them. So far Pelecanos has created a believable city and cast of characters that, while they work splendidly in their own right, form a meta-novel of sorts. I’m looking forward to the other installments of that bigger work. I may go for one of the later standalone books next, or go back and read the Nick Stefanos trilogy. At any rate, Pelecanos is high on my list of crime writers and sits comfortably on the same shelf as Leonard, Ellroy, Gran, Lehane, Price and Hand.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 15/75

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