The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos (2006) Orion (U.K, 2010) 378 pp
Thomas Mallon said that Washington D.C. novels “tend to be found on racks at National Airport, the raised gold letters of their titles promising a bomb on Air Force One or a terrorist kidnapping of the First Lady.” He has a point. Try to think of a novel or even a key scene by any of the major American writers of the last number of decades to be set in Washington D.C. and you may not be able to. Not one of Mailer, Irving, Cheever, Bellow, Roth, or Updike took any notable action there, and no piece of work seems intended to evoke the spirit of the place in the way that, say, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities does New York. Why should this be? For one, Washington D.C. is plainly not the American cultural capital as well as its political one. And it is quite true that other administratively focused capitals like Canberra, The Hague, or Brasilia are unlikely to produce a signature novel either. Perhaps nothing much appears to happen in D.C. except bureaucracy, process, and officialdom. Whereas most European capitals are by far their countries’ most popular destination for tourists, seven American cities receive more visitors than D.C., a ranking which could well be lower still if it weren’t for its proximity to New York, Boston, and Philadephia. The tourist is a fitting symbol of those described in Allen Drury’s observation that “it is a city of temporaries, a city of just-arriveds and only-visitings, built on the shifting sands of politics, filled with people passing through.” Some 650,000 people do live there, however, and a number of them are drug dealers, prostitutes, and police detectives. Many live in poor black housing projects and contend with appalling gun murder statistics which triumph over some of the tougher firearms laws around. For more than twenty years now, this has been crime novelist George Pelecanos’ D.C., and in The Night Gardener he wraps it up in rather an interesting series of murders.
It is 1985 and the corpse of Eve Drake lies in a community garden “in the low 30s around E, on the edge of Fort Dupont park,” having apparently been killed in the exact same circumstances as other recent victims Otto Williams and Ava Simmons. Twenty years later, teenager Asa Johnson is found dead in similar fashion. The unsolved Palindrome Murders are apparently back. On hand to investigate is Honest Decent Family Man Cop Gus Ramone, later to be augmented by Disgraced Former Cop With A Chance At Redemption Dan Holiday and Retired And Bored Cop TJ Cook, who had failed to solve the original murders despite a ninety per-cent career clearance rate and a good idea of who he thinks dunnit. As may be inferred, all three fit fairly neatly into genre caricatures rather than function as characters entertaining in their own right. The manner in which they link to produce some residual tension is almost sufficiently contrived to induce a sigh, in that Ramone and Holiday were beat cops supervising Cook’s crime scene in 1985. Holiday, you see, discovered Asa Johnson’s body, but instead of contacting the police he reached out to Cook. Then, Ramone’s Internal Affairs Unit put an end to Holiday’s career for using prostitutes, after which Holiday established a high-end chauffeur operation patronized by the criminals who form the other half of this story and through whom the proliferation of drugs, guns and delinquency is rendered. All very convenient, all very neat.
But, as it transpires, the Palindrome Murders are a bit of a side-line. What Pelecanos really wants to do is provide insight into the mayhem as a result of crack’s replacement of cocaine as the dominant narcotic on the corners and the surge in gun crime. This is presented through a not always interesting or indispensably relevant sub-plot involving Romeo Brock, a tearaway youngster bound either for jail or the morgue. Conrad Gaskins is the wiser young man whose task is to keep Brock out of harms’ way but who can’t resist the spoils of a plan to rob a drug dealer called Tommy Broadus (all the characters have names that Thomas Pynchon would use to get a laugh) as he transports his cash across the city.
This story, as outlined so far, will be insufficient as anything other than gentle diversion for aficionados of Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy. The former really only had one plot, described by Martin Amis as “Death roams the land disguised as money.” Ellroy has many more and combines them in huge cityscapes of novels latterly defined by demonic staccato sentences. It was Leonard, in fact, who said that Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia should not be read aloud “for fear of cracking wine glasses.” Pelecanos cannot surprise us with prose, so prim and conventional his style. He tells us in the simplest manner possible what a character is up to, whether driving, entering a house, having a drink at a bar, or removing a cigarette from its packet:
He blew into a deck of Marlboro Lights and watched as the filtered end of one popped out.
By contrast, here is a James Ellroy character in L.A. Confidential, albeit one engaged in less quotidian activity:
Bud shot him in the face, pulled a spare piece — bang, bang from the coon’s line of fire. The man hit the floor dead spread — a prime entry wound oozing blood. Bud put the spare in his hand; the front door crashed in. He dumped Rice Krispies on the stiff, called an ambulance.
Meanwhile, Leonard’s gift for phrasing and his ear for the rhythms of dialogue was born out of the desire to make things seem as they actually are, with little regard for convention or neatness. “Write the book the way it should be written, then give it to someone else to put in the commas and shit” was his stated view. We are in rather more conventional company with Pelecanos.
Nonetheless, his best asset is a considerable ear for street patois and intermissions in which the broader effects of the types of crimes relevant to the novel are felt by the city at large. Small pieces of detail, both about the criminal life and police work, are very satisfying, such as, for example, learning that living “on paper” means being on parole or discovering why detectives find that giving an interviewee Mountain Dew is a good idea. It is frustrating, however, that none of the three main characters, in whose company we spend most of the novel, are particularly good delivery systems for these attributes. Minor characters, most of whom inhabit the streets onto which Pelecanos has plainly deposited a considerable quantity of shoe leather, have interesting exchanges such as:
“You was bragging on yourself when you went to that place, I expect,” said Raynella to Broadus.
“I told him to make sure everyone knew he was alone on this,” said Benjamin.
“That he bankrolled it hisself.”
“What he do, give out his home address?”
“I never did,” said Broadus.
“I don’t know how they figured where he stayed at,” said Benjamin. “But look, we gonna find all that out.”
“You goddamn right you gonna find out. ‘Cause my son is lyin in a, a dog pound with a hole in his shoulder, and some motherfucker’s gonna have to pay the dinner bill.”
There is a sense here of being told something about the worldview of these people, something of the world they inhabit. But when T.J. Cook tells us that he retired early because “the job changed from what it was,” what we actually seem to get is Pelecanos providing some fairly insipid social commentary.
The feds threatened to turn off the money faucet to the District unless the MPD put more uniforms on the streets and started making more drug arrests. But you know, locking people up willy-nilly for drugs doesn’t do shit but destroy families and turn citizens against police.
And so on. This follows Cook’s observation that the arrival of crack to D.C. in 1986 predicated this decline, but an alternative view might be that, whether or not the government’s response was suitable, it was criminals who brought this scourge onto the streets and therefore ought to bear the responsibility for the ruin it inflicted on communities. A revered murder detective with decades of experience and a ninety percent clearance rate would be an excellent vehicle to present some of the nuance of the debate, rather than this shallow rehash of a view that seems to boil down to crime not really being the responsibility of criminals.
Overall, Pelecanos has much of value to say about the change that has come to Washington over the years and is evidently an outstanding authority. In this novel alone (there are fifteen others) he touches on issues of race in schools, gentrification, the welfare state, changing police tactics, and, in the domestic environment, fatherly responsibility in a city where the temptations of gangs and guns are doubtless considerable. But he inhabits a genre which above all relies on plot and easily comprehensible characters, factors which combine to prevent him from spreading his wings. Should he write a D.C. equivalent of Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, David Simon’s monumental chronicle of the daily activities of Baltimore Police’s murder department, it might render the question of the absent Washington D.C. novel rather less interesting. But then perhaps no-one would buy that in Thomas Mallon’s airport. If the prevailing feeling is one of moderate disappointment with this adequate novel, it is because its best work is not present in sufficient quantity because of the requirements of the genre to revert to driving the plot along. Conversely, people who tend towards only buying books from airports will find the same material a distraction from the whodunnit.