The Night Gardener
by George Pelecanos
Published by Little, Brown
384 pages, 2006
God Is Crying
Reviewed by David Thayer
George Pelecanos writes his stories from the ground up. Setting is more than background in his latest standalone, The Night Gardener, where the neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., are as integral to the storyline as the characters. Covering the decades between the Reagan era and now, this novel is an informal history of powder cocaine's progression to crack and the violence that has destroyed a generation of black families in the process.
Pelecanos has penned a procedural with a twist. The book opens at a crime scene in 1985, one that involves a longtime detective and two rookie cops. The 24-year veteran, Sergeant T.C. Cook, is black, the 20-something rookies white. Cook begins to realize that this crime is yet another in a series of killings, all of the victims young, black and left for dead in community gardens; all of the victims with first names, such as Otto and Ava, that could be spelled the same way backward as forward -- palindromes. Cook vows to find the man responsible.
The first paragraph is vintage Pelecanos:
The crime scene was in the low 30s around E, on the edge of Fort Dupont Park, in a neighborhood known as Greenway, in the 6th District section of Southeast D.C. A girl of fourteen lay in the grass on the side of a community vegetable garden that was blind to the residents whose yards backed up to the nearby woods.
No doubt about it, you're in Pelecanos country.
Soon, the story leaps 20 years ahead. One of those rookie cops from the opening scene, Gus Ramone, now works in the Violent Crime Branch (VCB) of D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department. Ramone is assisting the primary detective in an investigation into the death of Asa Johnson, a bookish black teenager who was gunned down in a community garden. The slaying shares characteristics with the still-unsolved homicides known as the Palindrome Murders.
Meanwhile, that other long-ago rookie, Dan "Doc" Holiday, is now an ex-cop, fired from the force after an investigation linked him to a prostitute and currently operating a chauffeur service (with body-guarding options on the side). Of all people, it was Ramone who'd led the Internal Affairs team that busted Holiday. And now, in the present day, it was Holiday who first discovered Asa Johnson's body, though he won't come forward to admit it. Instead, he reaches out to the aged T.C. Cook. Though Cook is now retired and suffering from the effects of a stroke, he remains determined to solve the Palindrome case, and believes he finally knows who did the killings.
The Night Gardener, Pelecanos' 14th book (after Drama City and Hard Revolution), is a novel whose back story is the story. The unsolved murders from two decades before expose the fault lines that run through the D.C. police department, as well as the unresolved issues between the principal characters here. Gus Ramone is wary when Dan Holiday eventually owns up to discovering Asa's corpse; the mistrust is mutual.
Even as the root of this crime yarn festers from the past, and the serial killer called "the Night Gardener" seems to have come out of a 20-year hibernation, more mayhem is occurring in the present, courtesy of Romeo Brock, a young gun who sees what he wants and takes it. Romeo has robbed a drug dealer of his money and his woman. And now he wants more -- much to the consternation of his elder cousin, Conrad Gaskins, who'd promised Brock's mother that he'd look after her son. Gaskins is living "on paper" (parole), and he can see where Romeo is headed -- either to prison or the morgue. Gaskins wants to walk away, to lead a normal life. Romeo, though, likes things as they are. A little more than halfway through this novel, Brock -- full of himself, content with his latest score, and reveling in the afternoon attentions of "a woman who was all woman" -- tries to convince his "cuz" that he should give up the 9-to-5 work routine, despite his parole requirements. Their conversation only exposes the flaws in Romeo's thinking:
"You shouldn't go anymore. We got money."
But Romeo Brock can't stop; he doesn't know how to quit when he's ahead, and his crimes keep the VCB detectives hopping. Ramone, however, remains fixated on the death of that teenager, Asa Johnson. Asa, it seems, was a friend of Ramone's 14-year-old, mixed-race son, Diego. Ramone is investigating more than a murder here; he's also trying to get inside the life of a teenage boy, his teenage boy, while struggling to get through each day as a Violent Crimes detective. He'd enrolled Diego at a suburban Maryland school in hopes of protecting him, but his good intentions have had unforeseen consequences.
Something Asa's father, Terrance Johnson, told him keeps nagging at the back of Ramone's skull. Standing in an afternoon drizzle, Terrance said, "God's crying." The specific reference was to the rain, but it reminds this cop of how children die so commonly in U.S. cities these days.
Gus Ramone does the heavy lifting throughout the first half of this novel. He's a sympathetic figure, an Italian-American father who loves his African-American, cop-turned-teacher spouse, Regina, and wants the best for his two children. His personality is low-key, and he's a systematic, determined detective. Pelecanos devotes considerable time and attention to the details of the Violent Crime Branch's routine and the work of both Ramone and his female partner, Rhonda Willis. The precision with which this aspect of the story is described is both a strength and weakness of the narrative. Gus is simply not as interesting as Dan Holiday or Romeo Brock, yet this is predominantly Gus Ramone's book.
Musical references are a Pelecanos signature, and we find plenty of them in these pages. A standout is Freda Payne's song "Bring the Boys Home." Its refrain is "bring them back alive," something every mother in the District wishes whenever her child leaves for school, or hits the street. The details that infuse the story -- songs on the jukebox, the bars people frequent, the brand of cigarettes they smoke, the expensive shoes they can't do without -- are all nuances that reveal the characters' places in the scheme of things. Romeo Brock pays homage to another era by smoking Kools, while an enforcer for a dealer tips his ball cap at an angle that says he's strapped.
Pelecanos maintains a strong narrative presence here, mapping his turf with an explorer's eye. House by house, block by block, he knows where his characters are, and wants the reader to know when eye contact will get them killed, how to read body language -- the swagger, the dip and the roll.
Once Dan Holiday re-enters this tale, the author kicks things up a notch. The pace of his storytelling quickens, becoming more suggestive of a thriller than a procedural, as Pelecanos rolls out a series of scenes designed to create tension and suspense -- the things you'd expect in a crime novel. Romeo Brock gets his due (not unexpected) in one of the book's few violent episodes, and his undoing exposes a crooked cop, as well as a connection to the Palindrome Murders.
Without spoiling the ending, it's fair to say that The Night Gardener takes a different path to its resolution than many commercial novels would dare do. The author has ambitions beyond the genre, ambitions that invoke the tradition of the social novel and what it reveals about society. What we gain here is more than a history lesson about the impact of crack cocaine's arrival in the U.S. capital. You’d wish it would also discuss how to stop using crack, but this history lesson can be quite valuable just the same.
Contrary to what Conrad Gaskins says about every story having an ending, George Pelecanos shows us that the opposite is true. This is a story that has no end in sight, only fresh faces and new names, following a well-worn path to oblivion. | August 2006
David Thayer is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the blog One More Bite of the Apple. He's also a published poet, his work having appeared in an anthology as well as literary magazines. Thayer has recently completed a crime novel, the beginning of a series about cops in the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division. This is his first review for January Magazine.