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Strange Bedfellows

  Hell to Pay
George P. Pelecanos
Little, Brown, 2002
Rating: 3.5

Posted: April 14, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

George P. Pelecanos has quietly built a reputation as a sturdy constructor of gritty crime thrillers, earning praise from the likes of Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane. Given that he recently received the star treatment from Entertainment Weekly, his literary star shows all signs of gearing up for some heavy ascendancy. And it's certainly earned -- for the most part.

Hell to Pay, Pelecanos' latest book, revisits Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the ebony-and-ivory duo he introduced in 2001's Right As Rain. Strange is a fifty-something private investigator, a former cop who takes pride in his ties to his community, the large African-American population of Washington, D.C. Quinn is younger, white and a bit of a firebrand, an ex-cop with a quick temper and a rep to go with it. Quinn likes taking it easy in the used book-and-record shop where he works, but he's also up for action when a couple of crusading young women who specialize in locating minors hire Strange to help liberate an underage prostitute from the clutches of a pimp named Worldwide Wilson.

Quinn crosses paths with Wilson a bit early in the game, and allows the smooth-talking pimp to get under his skin. This confrontation eats at him, fueling a restlessness of spirit that's cooled somewhat when he begins a romantic relationship with Sue Tracy, one of the tough investigators looking to remove the girl from Wilson's employ. Of course, one of his allies -- another young hooker who helps him track down his quarry -- suffers at Wilson's hands, and Quinn and Wilson meet again, naturally, in a testosterone-fueled grudge match.

Pelecanos weaves this tale around the corners of a larger one involving the drive-by slaying of an aimless young black man and a talented peewee football player whose team happens to be coached by Strange and Quinn. Strange is contacted by the boy's father, a well-connected criminal who asks for his help in bringing the murderers to the kind of justice only the streets can provide. His choices regarding that request are predictable enough, but nonetheless involving for the thorny moral issues they raise.

Pelecanos structures this tale solidly, with all the pacing and emotional subplots of a typical movie thriller. And, indeed, on the surface Strange and Quinn seem like private-eye versions of the Riggs and Murtaugh characters from the Lethal Weapon series. But while Hell to Pay sticks a bit too closely to standard crime thriller formula, Pelecanos invests his protagonists with shades of real depth. In fact, he lays the depth on a bit too strongly in Strange's case: Although he's involved with his smart and lovely office assistant, he can't seem to help sneaking into Asian massage parlors to get his rocks off. And wouldn't you know that he happens to have a connection of his own to the dead boy's father? One that guilts him into crossing the moral line where the killers are concerned?

Still, the pat, Hollywood-boilerplate feel to the material doesn't detract from the suspense level, and Pelecanos has a Leonard-esque flair for getting inside the heads of criminal lowlifes. His dialogue, especially between African-Americans, tends toward the stilted and forced, but for all that, nothing about Hell to Pay comes off as contrived or false. It's a standard crime story with all the bordering-on-cliché elements -- the death of an innocent young kid, hookers and pimps, drug dealers, and a neat connection to Strange's past that's not even remotely given the attention it should have. But it delivers its jolts with precision and makes things work in spite of the familiarity of the proceedings. Pelecanos is capable of better, but Hell to Pay isn't a bad place to start.

Related Links:

Elmore Leonard: Tishomingo Blues

Walter Mosley: Bad Boy Brawly Brown

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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