A lot of crime novelists run the old twin-track narrative – one detective, two jobs, seemingly unconnected until they converge, somehow or other, during a usually bloody climax. Some crime novelists run the old twin-track time after time with the same recurring detective / renegade copper / rogue private dick so that it can come to feel, if you read a lot of novels by the same writer, that you inhabit a sort of perpetually reoccurring present in which the same background is used over and over again, like a car chase in a Hannah-Barbara cartoon. Some people, probably a lot of people, like that sense of familiarity. It’s one of the reason why bestselling novelists sell so well. Repackaged familiarity. You see it in any extended crime series you’d care to mention. Good crime novelists, like, say George Pelecanos, know all of this and know how to subvert expectation just enough to keep you on your toes whilst at the same time delivering the bang for your buck that you paid for.
The Double sees the return of Spero Lucas, a former Marine who first surfaced in the Pelecanos novel, The Cut (hilariously called The Cat on the biblio page of the new un). His old buddy Petersen has a job for him, investigating the murder of a young woman called Edwina Christian. A guy called Calvin Bates is bang to rights and Petersen wants Lucas to look into things and see if he can’t dig up some to murky the waters of what strikes everyone concerned as an open and shut case. Meanwhile, Spero’s buddy asks him to help out a friend called Grace Kinkaid who had a painting, the eponymous Double of the title, stolen. A third strand involves Spero’s brother, Leo, who works as a teacher; a young girl from his school, Cherise Roberts, was murdered and abandoned in a dumpster. Without being too pushy, Leo asks Speero to look into it.
Now, anyone familiar with The Wire – and familiar with the fact that Pelecanos wrote for it – will recognise the world Pelecanos creates (even though Pelecanos’ fiction for the most part resides in and around Washington as opposed to the Detroit of The Wire), the vernacular. His novels, though, are also cut with a muscular sexuality and the kind of attention to detail (specifically around weaponry and cars) that you’d find in a writer like Elmore Leonard (Pelecanos and Leonard have a lot in common, if you like one you’ll like the other).
Where he subverts expectations most particularly in The Double is in the way he works the various strands. The painting strand is by far the major storyline, fleshing out the mid section of the book by expanding the narrative voice from just Speero to incorporate the three villains running the scam. The Petersen job is dispatched relatively early but (crucially) is not resolved as cohesively as you would expect in a crime novel (he finds something out about a peripheral character that muddies the job of the jury in the murder trial – this is all he was expected to do and he did it, there is no sense of wanting justice, it’s just a job); it does give Speero an in later in the novel, though, to tie up the Cherise murder (again, somewhat circumspectly). As ever with Pelecanos, and certainly in the portions of the book in which Speero faces off against a guy called Billy King, he can be offputtingly macho at times. There is a lot of dickswinging in The Double (and don’t get me started on the sex Speero has with a married lady – you can only read about so many ‘engorged poles’ before you start rolling your eyes).
This is offset, however, by the worrying hum you get that Speero is a danger to himself as much as other people. Pelecano explores what it is like for a veteran of recent conflicts to try and reintegrate themselves in the normal everyday world and Spero interacts with enough veterans for Pelecanos to be able to show lots and lots of different aspects to that world. It feels like rich pickings for a writer so interested in what it is like to be a man (or a certain kind of man) in the world in which we find ourselves. It also sets up Speero as the first real successor to Pelecanos’ long-running Nick Stefanos. I suspect Pelecanos has a few more Speero Lucas books up his sleeve and, if The Double is anything to go by, things could get a mite darker (and how interesting would it be to read a crime series in which the main protagonist gradually loses his readers’ sympathies…).
Any Cop?: Fans will devour the book in a sitting or two. Everyone else might want to catch The Cut before they make their way to The Double…