I just discovered Pelecanos, and I’d like to issue him a challenge, because I think he’s a very talented writer. Mr. Pelecanos, someday please write a buddy novel about, say, a middle-aged woman detective and the gay former football player she teams up with. I think you could do it, maybe even have fun with it. To make it even more of a departure, start the story out someplace bland like Old Town Alexandria.
“Right as Rain” is the first in a series about two former cops in Washington, D.C. Derek Strange is wiser, more seasoned, and African-American. Strange is reflective, well-rounded, methodical, and sometimes funny. Terry Quinn is younger, impulsive, and not African-American. He has a scrappy hot-headedness to him, some of which seems to be b/c he has a complex about his [lack of] height. They meet when Strange is hired to investigate an incident in which Quinn, when he was still a cop, fatally shot a fellow officer who’d been undercover. And who was African-American. Conversations about race naturally follow.
Positives: (1) The dialog is very well written. Pelecanos has a real gift. If I stick with the series, it’ll be because I’m a little in awe of how well he writes dialog. (2) The Georgia Avenue setting and the real-ness of the D.C. neighborhoods. Pelecanos’ characters refer to police incidents that I remember from the news when I lived in D.C. He touches on the city’s arguably unique class and race tensions. (3) The buddy dynamic carries over to the side characters too. The Latino brothers who supply drugs, the father-son racists who take the drugs into the District, etc.
Nuisance: There’s a crudeness in how even the most sympathetic characters talk and think about women. It’s part of the genre, I know, I know, I know. Hard-boiled crime fiction is not the place to expect any believable, multi-dimensional women characters. I haven’t found any in the pop fiction marketed to women either, for that matter (aka “chick lit”).
But in both Right as Rain and his 2011 The Cut, Pelecanos more than once has his protagonist come home in a restless, pacing mood and conclude that he “needs a woman.” Sort of like how I’d decide I need a bag of chips or a chocolate bar. Huh?
For all I know, Pelecanos, under a different name, writes fantastic women characters who offer more than sex. Even in these books, I understand that some part of the story is served by entire paragraphs describing how a male character thinks about a woman’s breasts. Character development. Escapist fantasies for some readers. Whatever. I’m not annoyed on prudish grounds. I’m more curious as to whether Pelecanos can show a range beyond the gritty/macho stuff he obviously has mastered.