Pelecanos follows four mysteries--three about D.C. appliance salesman/barman Nick Stefanos (Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go, 1995, etc.)--with this crossover prequel showing the warmly seamy side of Nick's Grill back in 1949. Though Nick's Grill provides the turf his heroes can battle over, Nick himself takes a backseat to three even scrappier types. There's Joe Recevo, a bagman for a suave, brutal boss named Burke (a Richard Conte role). There's Peter Karras, Recevo's childhood friend, who followed him into Burke's gang but got carried out on Burke-crippled legs when he drew the line at shaking down an old friend of Karras's hated father. And there's Michael Florek, an innocent who's climbed down from the Pennsylvania hills in search of his sister Lola, a hophead whore now spreading her legs in the nation's capital as a nightmare john stalks the fringes of the story cutting up prostitutes- -without causing Karras's friend Jimmy Boyle, a D.C. cop so hot for his gold shield that he's getting hooked on uppers, a single sleepless night. Pelecanos fills his bars with hot, smoky music and his streets with colorful lowlifes, but he lingers so lovingly over the tough childhood memories Karras and Recevo share, their wartime traumas, and their present affairs--even though Karras is respectably married to his first love, he can't keep his hands off census taker Vera Gardner, who worries all the time about the Bomb--that you can tell early on where this story is heading: toward a showdown over Nick's, when Burke picks his place to lead the block in paying protection money, and Nick digs in his heels, and Karras and Recevo face off one last time. A workmanlike, atmospheric retro noir--Once Upon a Time in America meets The Big Combo. If it's not quite as original or resonant as the Big Book Pelecanos seems to have had in mind, you'll still find yourself feeling everything you're supposed to about the familiar demi-heroic types and their grim postwar world.