Crime Stories: George Pelecanos’ “Shoedog” and “The Night Gardener”

Don’t be afraid of the raised lettering on the book jacket; a well-written crime-fiction novel deserves to be treated as high art. MAGNET’s Andrew Earles surveys the modern landscape of hard-boiled detective stories and tales of noir-colored underworlds

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Shoedog / The Night Gardner
George Pelecanos has written four stand-alone books, three in the past five years. 1994′s Shoedog and 2006′s The Night Gardener are Pelecanos opposites that I’ve grouped together based on flimsy criteria: If readers want to start with a non-series, then why not pick one of the strongest two? And if the uninitiated are not only new to Pelecanos but new to crime fiction, The Night Gardener will go down smooth.

Published in the space between Nick’s Trip and Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go (both volumes in Pelecanos’ Nick Stefanos series), Shoedog recalls the classic noir trick of keeping the reader transfixed when a dead-end or unsavory conclusion becomes imminent shortly after the story commences. To this day, you can’t go wrong with a well-written drifter, and Shoedog protagonist Constantine is one of the best. Most people find drifters to be infinitely readable (more so in a bad economy). The urge may be tiny or dormant, but deep down inside every drone chained to a soul-shredding day job, every person who pays rent or a mortgage and every spouse buried under a relationship of convenience and repetition, lies an escapist’s longing to be free of any ties, to be able to pick up and leave in good or bad times. People enjoy seeing the world through migratory eyes.

Constantine is no Jack Reacher (the absurdly indestructible drifter’s drifter created by superstar mystery writer Lee Child) or transient action figure. He has the requisite stoicism of a cautious man living off the grid, with an almost childlike naivete toward potentially deadly factors of the crime lifestyle. Like Stefanos, Constantine has a certain music taste and various irresponsible habits (including poor judgment in the pursuit of women), but Constantine is too much of a don’t-give-a-fuck badass to be troubled with steady employment or prolonged residency. His involvement in a double robbery (of liquor stores) is prefaced by little to no hesitation, like it’s a welcome break in the monotony of town-hopping. The heists are planned by Grimes, a wealthy man who puts together robberies as a hobby. Constantine is a driver, and the impromptu crew is peopled with men that owe Grimes money. In true noir style, the job stinks from a mile off, so after the crew is shrunk exponentially by Grimes’ malevolent motive, the finale finds Constantine in revenge mode and predictably weakened by the wrong woman.

Many prominent crime writers wisely take advantage of a research perk peculiar to their profession: riding with cops. Pelecanos did this as research for several novels before he wrote uniformed protagonists. Funny, then, that The Night Gardener best achieves Pelecanos’ goal of writing outside the crime-fiction genre. It’s an amalgam of police procedural and Pete Dexter character study, with the serial-killer element downgraded to a subtle subplot. Another writer that comes to mind is the overlooked Andrew Coburn, who also writes character development as something more than a reluctantly mandated glue connecting scenes of action. The Night Gardener is politely aggressive in spurts and dismal throughout, but it never shucks hope and heart.

Tomorrow’s installment: Pelecanos’ Drama City and The Turnaround.

On Monday, Pelecanos made MAGNET a mix tape; check it out here.

In 2001, Pelecanos interviewed ex-Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn for us; read it here. They got along so well that four years later, they wrote a song together (“Cindy It Was Always You,” from Wynn’s…tick…tick…tick) and also performed once in a live setting, with Wynn providing instrumental backing to Pelecanos reading from 2006′s The Night Gardener. (Download “The Night Gardener”)

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