Hell to Pay

by George P. Pelecanos

Published by Little, Brown and Company

344 pages, 2002




Capital Crime

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


A few years back, a lawyer friend of mine was in Washington, D.C., to argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Entering the cab that morning he gave the driver, a cordial black man in his 50s, his destination, only to find himself delivered to the District's superior court building, instead. Now worried about being late, the attorney repeated that his case was at the Supreme Court. The cab driver was surprised and amused. "You mean they got real cases up there?" he asked as he pulled back into traffic. "Man, I always thought that place was just for tourists."

Welcome to the other Washington. I grew up in the greater D.C. area and remember the city's predominantly black neighborhoods from the 1950s. Houses were small, porches were big and the yards varied: some neat, some worn bare, others overgrown with dogwoods, magnolias and azaleas. D.C. had the look not of a big city, but of a small industrial town. Then came the riots of the 60s. By that time, whites drove nervously through burnt-out boulevards of brick row houses where frail elderly black men still gathered on street corners. Gangs of muscular younger men played basketball in the bare lots that surrounded the horribly failed public housing projects. The gleaming marble federal buildings and exclusive Potomac townhouses that outsiders associate with the U.S. capital were just a few blocks away, but they might as well have been on Mars.

This rich, tragic and previously unexplored world of the other D.C. provides the setting for George Pelecanos' groundbreaking crime fiction. His debut series, set in the 1950s, followed bartender Nick Stefanos. His second, spanning the 1970s, 80s and 90s, was about black Vietnam vet Marcus Clay and his partner, Dmitri Karras. The most recent series, focusing on black ex-cop and current private eye Derek Strange, is as much about urban black men as it is about crime-solving. Readers of contemporary police procedurals by Ed McBain, Joseph Wambaugh and Michael Connelly have glimpsed men like Strange before, but almost always in supporting roles. Pelecanos puts an African-American investigator center stage and offers a fascinating, frightening and stereotype-free view of a black man in a black community. Hell to Pay is about drugs, alcohol, employment, business philosophy, racism, machismo, Christianity, virility, family and fidelity. It's a portrait all the more stark for being painted against the brutal backdrop of one of the United States' most segregated cities.

Pelecanos' fans will find Hell to Pay a powerful follow-up to Right as Rain (2001), which introduced Strange. For readers new to Pelecanos, Hell to Pay is likely to send them to the library or bookstore to catch up on the nine previous works they've missed, among them the award-winning Big Blowdown (1996).

In Hell to Pay, Pelecanos sets Strange on a collision course with the black D.C. community's worst nightmare: a trio of stoned teenage drug dealers entranced by violence and bent on revenge. Their ringleader, Garfield Potter, has chosen as his target Lorenze Wilder, another lowlife who owes him money. The book opens ominously with Potter and his sidekicks, Carlton "Dirty" Little and Charles White, cruising around the city in a Ford Caprice loaded with a snarling pit bull and a stockpile of sidearms.

Those early pages unleash a chilling undercurrent of fear that pervades the next several chapters, like loud music from a distant car. Riding the power of that undercurrent, Pelecanos ignores the crime fiction trend favoring bodies and bloodshed right off the bat. Instead, he goes on to devote the remainder of the first half of this novel -- nearly 200 pages -- to a character study of Strange, a 50-something black businessman shaped by the city's racism, poverty and crime, as well as by his own struggles within that milieu.

Strange is continuing an unusual and slightly uneasy professional relationship with a hot-tempered white ex-cop, Terry Quinn. The two met in Right as Rain, when both were investigating the death of a young black cop in a shoot-out that had also involved Quinn -- and which had cost him his career with the D.C. police. Quinn now works part-time in a used bookstore, while subcontracting detective work through Strange Investigations. His current assignment: to help a pair of female P.I.s who specialize in retrieving runaway teens dabbling in prostitution in the city's glitzy Georgetown district. Strange, meanwhile, is running a background check on a friend's daughter's fiancé, a monied black booking agent who, according to his prospective father-in-law, seems too good to be true.

Strange is proud of his modest but thriving business that employs other black professionals, and of the work he does coaching an inner-city boys' football team. But he's made uneasy by the obvious romantic expectations of his office manager and longtime girlfriend, Janine Baker -- particularly as these expectations conflict with his predilection for massage-parlor sex with Asian girls. Alcohol is Strange's escape from his guilt; hitting a punching bag in his basement, his punishment. While the specifics are cultural, and the descriptions pungent, Strange's dilemma resonates at a higher level: Can a man's good works outweigh his sins, or does he have to stop sinning?

We're halfway into the book when Garfield Potter and his fellow gangbangers crash into the heart of Strange's uneasy life. The encounter comes not in the course of an investigation -- when Strange would have been prepared for them -- but in his own neighborhood. Joe Wilder, an 8-year-old on the football team Strange coaches, trots off the practice field one night to go with his uncle to a local ice-cream stand. The uncle is the ill-fated Lorenze Wilder, who has Potter, White and Little on his tail. Pelecanos provides a chilling picture of the dealers going in for the kill:

Had Wilder bothered to look in his rearview, he would have seen a white Plymouth following him from four or five car lengths back.

"He ain't dropping' that kid off," said White.

"Just keep on doin' what you're doin'," said Potter.

Carlton Little passed the fat bone over the front seat to Potter. Potter took it and hit deep. He kept the smoke in his lungs for as long as he could stand it. He exhaled and killed the forty of malt and dropped the bottle at his feet. The music from the radio was loud in the car.

Little and White fidget and squirm like a couple of nervous grade-school kids ("Boy, I am fucked up," Little giggles to himself) while Potter, cool as ice, gives the commands to maneuver them into position:

"You ready, Dirty?" said Potter.

"I guess I am," said Little, his voice cracking some on the reply. He bunched up the McDonald's trash by his side and flung it to the other side of the car. He thumbed off the Glock's safety and racked the slide.

"Motherfucker thinks he gonna rise up and take me for bad," said Potter. "He's gonna find out somethin' now."

White made the next turn, and Rhode Island Avenue came up ahead. His hands were shaking. He gripped the wheel tightly to make the shaking stop.

White pulls into the ice-cream stand parking lot. Potter and Little open fire, killing the uncle and nephew as they sit in the front seat of their car, licking cones.

Joe Wilder was only one of many kids on his team, but Strange takes the boy's murder as a personal failure. Abandoning his other cases, the detective sets out to hunt down the killers, and is troubled when he uncovers evidence that young Wilder was mysteriously linked to one of the most powerful players in D.C.'s drug trade. As it turns out, finding the sociopathic Potter and his cohorts is merely the beginning of Strange's challenge; determining who in the troubled capital community is morally responsible for the 8-year-old's death becomes the heart of his quest, and of the novel.

As Strange pursues the killers, the book's subplots echo with related questions about responsibility and violence. Quinn embarks on the lone-ranger rescue of a white teen prostitute from her wily black pimp, but bungles the job, forcing a confrontation with the attractive female P.I. with whom he's supposed to be working. Strange's routine investigation of the entrepreneurial fiancé turns up evidence that is both exonerating and disturbing. The ambiguity is so uncomfortably similar to Strange's own situation with Janine, that he's torn over what to report to the suspicious father-in-law.

By raising such troubling questions in Hell to Pay, Pelecanos elevates Derek Strange well above the field of today's fairly predictable hard-boiled P.I.s. He also makes it difficult to wrap up any of the philosophical issues he's raised, while at the same time trying to wrap up the cases in which this book's plot is rooted. After getting such a deep, disturbing look into his central character, I expected the novel to end on an equally thought-provoking and uncertain note. The upbeat ending Pelecanos offers, instead, was so unexpected that it left me suspicious and wary. I predict Strange will find there is far more hell to pay in the next book in this series. | May 2002


Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.