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Gardening at Night

  The Night Gardener
George Pelecanos
Little, Brown, 2006
Rating: 4.2

Posted: August 31, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

The aspect of George Pelecanosí writing that makes his books so absorbing might also, it turns out, be the one thing thatís keeping him from achieving breakout success along the lines of his friend Dennis Lehane. Despite universal acclaim from critics and fellow crime writers, Pelecanosí books donít enjoy the healthy sales of, say, a Michael Connelly novel. According to a great recent New York Times story, this fact almost got him dropped from his publisher, before it turned around and decided to unleash an aggressive marketing campaign for his newest work, The Night Gardener.

Clearly, Little, Brown wants to push Pelecanos up into Lehaneís territory, sales-wise, and itís hoping that The Night Gardener might just be his Mystic River. Now, Gardener isnít as socially incendiary as River -- both involve child murders, but none of the main characters in Gardener is the likely suspect. More importantly, while both writers allow their plots to unfold out of their characters, River gets to the point much quicker than Gardener -- youíre almost 100 pages in (90, to be exact) before anyone even discovers the body that sets events into motion.

That body belongs to Asa Johnson, and the manner of his death -- shot in the head, left in a community garden -- and the fact that his first name is spelled the same forward and backwards seems to link him to the Palindrome Murders, a rash of similar killings that plagued the Washington, D.C. area twenty years earlier.

But The Night Gardener isnít about the murder, at least not in the sense of following a single-minded detective as he sorts through Byzantine clues to suss out the killer. There is an investigation, of course, but dramatically it takes a back seat to the thoughts and actions of three men: Gus Ramone, a working-class cop and family man; Dan ďDocĒ Holliday, a former cop spinning his wheels with a boring business as a driver; and retired detective T.C. Cook, haunted still by his inability to solve the Palindrome Murders.

Pelecanos juggles a number of peripheral characters, like a wannabe criminal legend with a tangential link to Hollidayís own unofficial investigation into Johnsonís death. He walks us through Ramoneís job with all the procedural detail of a Connelly or an Ed McBain. And he keeps our attention through a couple of other murder cases seemingly unrelated to the one at the core of the story. In other words, heís more than adept at crafting a sturdy mystery.

But the heart of The Night Gardener is revealed in personal moments that donít necessarily bring anyone any closer to finding Johnsonís killer, but open up his protagonists with absorbing detail. From Ramoneís grounding in his home life, particularly his relationship with his sullen teenage son Diego, to scenes of Hollidayís flat, joyless life of empty sexual conquests and afternoons wasted with drinking buddies he doesnít particularly care for, these smaller, more intimate scenes are the heart of this engrossing book.

Pelecanosí approach -- to let us steep in the shoes of his characters, get to know them and care for them long before the real action starts -- just works. As in last yearís superb Drama City, it makes the difference between a good escapist read and a great, absorbing and affecting novel. The Night Gardener certainly qualifies as the latter; itís easily one of Pelecanosí best books in years. Whether it ends up pushing him into the world of security and sales enjoyed by his peers depends on his being discovered, enjoyed and cherished by a few thousand potential readers (okay, many thousands) just like you.

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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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