Pelecanos’s latest Extra Dark slice of Washington street crime leaps back a generation to connect the backstory of private eye Derek Strange (Soul Circus, 2003, etc.) to the murder of Martin Luther King.
The year is 1968. No, it’s 1959: Before Strange is ready to don a Metro Police Department uniform, he has to bond as a 13-year-old with Billy Georgelakos, tell Carmen Hill she’s pretty, and get caught shoplifting by a hard-nosed security guard who briskly sets him back on the straight and narrow and consigns his no-goodnik companions, Dominic and Angelo Martini, to a hopeless slide downward. Nine years later, once his old friends have acquired women and TVs on the installment plan, Derek is doing his best to protect and to serve. It’s not easy when his soul brothers are constantly telling him he’s sold out to the Man and his biological brother Dennis has graduated from the Navy reserve to serious addiction and a seriously bad crowd headlined by casual killer Alvin Jones and his cousin Kenneth Willis. Pelecanos has never written better than when he presents Alvin falling in love with a Cadillac El Dorado, seeing his plans for a robbery to finance it fall through, and instantly starting an alternate plan for some new crime. As Dr. King marches unwittingly toward an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, the nation’s capital simmers in lesser crimes that’ll come to a head just in time for the city to boil over in violence. Though Pelecanos never convincingly draws King’s death and its aftermath into his endless round of fictional crimes, he excels at using the maelstrom that follows the assassination to dramatize the utter breakdown of social mores among everybody from Alvin Jones to Derek Strange.
The most conventionally ambitious of Pelecanos’s sprawling studies of D.C. crime: pat in its sociological determinism, harrowing in its portraits of each hopeless loser and the few ex-losers who escape.