There are parts of every American city today where the drug trade is so out of control, the gun violence so pervasive and the system of justice so broken down that the value of life has been degraded as low as it gets. The only hope for the victims might be to take the law into their own hands. But that’s just hope; it doesn’t always work out.
Welcome to the “narcotized” streets of Washington, D.C., presented by George P. Pelecanos, currently hailed as “the best-kept secret in crime fiction.” Pelecanos’ new novel, Shame the Devil, is one of this year’s finalists in the mystery category for the Los Angles Times Book Prize. That’s due in part to Shame the Devil’s power to push everything else in your life aside until you’ve read through to the end. When you get there, you’re seeing life through … well, it feels like you’re seeing life.
“Hard-boiled” is an understatement for Pelecanos’ work. It’s certainly got the guys on both sides of the game who are as cold as gun-metal; an attachment to cars and be-bop; unfiltered cigarettes and three fingers of Old Grand-dad. When a cook asks a customer how rare they want their meat, he’s told to “Knock the horns off it and walk it through a warm room.”
But Pelecanos is somehow able to inject an odd sympathy for his macho men and even his homicidal maniacs. The book is dominated by the perspective of his main character, a small-time, middle-aged private investigator who supplements his income by working the bar at a downtown joint. But a good part of the brilliance that Pelecanos achieves stems from seamlessly alternating the point of view of the characters during the action scenes. You experience the murderer’s needs almost on an equal par with the needs of the victim about to take a bullet. In Pelecanos’ world, needs are needs: That’s so hard-boiled, it can seem unpeelable.
The riveting opening of Shame the Devil presents a crime gone wrong, and the multiple deaths that ensue. The main action of the book takes place three years later, with the victims’ relatives’ support group becoming central to the plot and its ultimate resolution. Pelecanos again and again takes us to the core of people whose lives have been emptied by the murder of their spouses or children, and the shock of loss that cannot find release.
The P.I.’s job intersects with this group of mourners. When the perpetrators of the murders reappear to take care of some unfinished business, it’s the victims’ relatives who have some unfinished “grief work” to take care of, amongst themselves and with the perps.
America prides itself on being a country of laws, not men. But Pelecanos reintroduces us to an America where the law is insufficient. Even a D.C. cop reminds his pals about what their own immigrant grandparents had to do to make it in America: “What they did was beyond the scope of the law. But the law isn’t always the answer. What they did was necessary. And it’s important that you know.”
It’s important to know because in the world depicted in Shame the Devil, people barely survive beneath the weight of crime, capitalism and cocaine. The only relief for working stiffs are tunes on the radio, occasional sex, a tumbler of Black Jack and watching C-Webb play. “The world. You can’t stop it from reaching you,” says one retired cop. “You can try, but it doesn’t work.”
For Pelecanos, the only real alternative is to turn toward the world, and most especially the world of your people, whether they’re the people you work with or in your neighborhood or your family. When it comes to the security provided by laws, the author sadly but unflinchingly shows you the murder and mayhem taking place daily within the shadow of the nation’s Capitol dome.
As his P.I. might tell you: “This wasn’t paranoia. This was real.”