An ex-Marine takes center stage in George Pelecanos's new novel of strivers and schemers in Washington, D.C.
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Washington, D.C., is a politically volatile place, but there are a few things about the city you can count on. Cherry blossoms will bloom in the spring. The Washington Nationals will be out of contention in the fall. And local crime writer George Pelecanos will take a moment in one of his novels to chastise the hometown paper for its coverage of murders in the District. "The Post continued to routinely bury the violent deaths of D.C.’s young black citizens inside the paper, telling its readership implicitly that black life was worth less than whites," he writes in his tight and propulsive new novel, The Cut, reiterating a complaint he’s made with slight variations across his two-decade career.
But Pelecanos also knows the city has changed since his 1992 debut, "A Firing Offense." The PIs in his earlier books, like Nick Stefanos and Derek Strange, navigated a District that was emerging from the crack years and nursed long memories about the riots of 1968. Now, he notes that homicides are at a 45-year low in the District, and in the city’s bustling U Street corridor he sees "all sorts of faces and types, the D.C. most folks had wanted for a long time."
So, time for a fresh start: In "The Cut," Pelecanos introduces a new hero, Spero Lucas, who’s engineered to embody an evolving city and the new concerns that come with it. A 20-something investigator for a criminal defense attorney, Spero is an ex-Marine with a no-nonsense attitude about practically everything: family, race, books (he’s big on Donald Westlake novels), and especially getting the job done. The first thing we learn about him is that he’s wearing Carhartt – built-to-last working-man clothes.
The plot of "The Cut" involves a side job Spero takes to investigate the theft of a package of marijuana belonging to Anwan, a convicted drug dealer. As in Pelecanos’ best work, Spero’s travels are as much about D.C.’s ecosystem of class and race as they are about gunplay and justice. Anwan’s two lieutenants are young black men in over their head, facing a poverty of options and vulnerable to the appeal of quick money. A white middle-aged copyright lawyer who assists Spero is oblivious to the dealing around her. Corrupt cops abound. And caught in the middle is Ernest, an at-risk high-school student who dreams of being a filmmaker if he can escape the drama swallowing up Spero.