Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Literature: The Night Gardener by George P. Pelecanos, Narrated by the Author

Perhaps the only redeeming thing about the weekly wag, Entertainment Weekly is the occasional final piece is “The Pop of King” presenting the ruminations of uber-author Stephen King. King closed 2006 with various lists of the best media he encountered that year: movies, music, books…. Among the final category King frothed over George P. Pelecanos’ The Night Gardener and did so for good reason. Washington, DC native-Pelecanos is the author of two dozen novels including a highly regarded quartet of investigative procedurals featuring Derek Strange: Right As Rain (2001), Hell to Pay (2002), Soul Circus (2003), and Hard Revolution (2004). The majority of his books are set in the DC and surrounding area.

The Night Gardener is a superbly crafted police procedural, except defining the story as such is like calling pâté blood sausage. Nominally, the story surrounds a trio of detectives: one actively working, one age retired and the other unjustly disgraced. Pelecanos smartly uses flashback-forward (read: with brevity) to provide the thread joining the three incongruent personalities of straight-edged Gus Ramone, former case-closing cyborg TC Cook, and the epinephrine-addled Dan “Doc” Holiday. This thread joins two occurrences twenty years apart.

The mid-1980s found three children murdered by community gardens around Washington, DC, each anally violated and shot in the head and, each having a palindromic first name. Ramone and Holiday were rookie uniforms on the scene with Cook the attending detective sergeant. Cook, who boasted a ninety percent case closure rate (while other detectives hovered in the high sixties), failed to close what came to be known as the “palindrome” murders or the “Night Gardener” murders.

Twenty years later, Ramone is a detective on the scene of an eerily familiar set of circumstances with a dead teenager named Asa found shot in the head and anally violated on the edge of a DC community garden. The crime was anonymously called in by Holiday, now a chauffer, who while sleeping off a drunk, went to the garden to relieve himself and discovered the body.

The appeal to Pelecanos’ approach to the police procedural is that he hardly limits himself to the “just the facts, ma’am” approach. Injected into the urban body politic is commentary and observation on socioeconomic and sociopolitical elements surrounding the plot. Pelecanos’ character development is full and satisfying, demonstrating his ability to craft characters so dramatically different from one another, the reader might think they are owed their own novel.

The author does this with a narrative that is Hemingway spare and Stephan King hip. The dialog is short and plain. There is no over-intellectualization here on the part of the detectives. They are meat-and potatoes characters equally affected by good luck, bad luck, regrets, and obsessions. Pelecanos also endeavors to cause the black and white moral elements to collide, forking that grey area in which we all live.

The Night Gardener is the top of a craft too polluted by mundane and mediocre attempts at the same goal: intelligent entertainment that forces the reader to think and appreciate.

Pelecanos narrates the story in a deadpan manner devoid of any of the vocal techniques used by the best actor narrators like Will Patton, Jame Woods, and Eli Wallach. Actor narrators attempt to approximate radio theater with a single reader. Pelecanos approach more closely approximates Stephen King’s reading of his “LTs Theory of Pets” or Tony Hillerman’s reading of his “The Blessing Way.” Author narration is story telling and Pelecanos proves to be one of the better authors at presenting his own work.

This review was first published in Blogcritics.org

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2007