Book: Hell to Pay

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Hell to Pay: A Novel

Author: George P. Pelecanos
Publisher: Little, Brown

Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the team of investigators who made their bestselling debut in Right As Rain, are hired to find a fourteen-year-old girl who’s run away from her home in the suburbs. It’s easy for Strange and Quinn to learn that the girl is now working as a prostitute in one of D.C.’s most brutal neighborhoods. Getting her to leave is harder. The two ex-cops think they know this world-but nothing in their experience has prepared them for the vengeance of Worldwide Wilson, the ruthless operator whose territory they are intruding upon.

Their mission is fractured by a violent criminal act against a young player from the neighborhood football team that Strange coaches. Tracking down the perpetrators becomes a point of honor for Strange and Quinn, and their investigation leads them deep inside the city’s labyrinth of crime-and back, again, to the lethal Worldwide Wilson.


In Hell to Pay, Washington, D.C., is just one more thug in an endless list of thugs who brutalize the poor, the weak, and the young. The primary victim this time is a rising star on Derek Strange’s Pee Wee football team. In this city where making T-shirts for bereaved families of young murder victims is a full-time business, the boy is an accidental victim in a war between drug dealers and lowlifes.

Private investigator Strange, in his second George Pelecanos outing (after 2001’s Right as Rain), has seen enough of this face of D.C. His relationship to his secretary/lover Janine sputters in the wake of increasing, irrational infidelities. His moral compass swings wildly as he tracks the killers, Garfield “Death” Potter and friends. Not knowing if he can be satisfied seeing these men in prison, Strange contemplates other brands of “justice.”

For fans of Pelecanos, all the usual trappings are here: the hyper-real dialogue, the bloody street fights, the immersion in classic R&B, and the most current music on the streets. Pelecanos does stumble in a few places. His narrative becomes wooden at times, and his plot features a couple of glaring coincidences (e.g., Strange just happens to jot down the license plate of a car that later turns out to be the one driven by the murderers). But Pelecanos is the real deal in noir. If Dennis Lehane owns Boston and Michael Connelly is master of L.A., Pelecanos is dark D.C.’s intimate chronicler. —Patrick O’Kelley

Barnes and Noble

Standing somewhere between the gritty works of Michael Connelly and James Ellroy, George Pelecanos has firmly wedged himself into the top echelon of crime writers and mined an area of suspense that’s all his own. Long admired as a cult novelist, he now broadens his range in theme and character to come up with a combination that will take him to the top of the bestseller lists.

Derek Strange and Terry Quinn—who first appeared in Pelecanos’s Right as Rain—are private investigators who occasionally work together. When Strange is hired by a pair of female ex-cop P.I.’s to find a teenage prostitute, he farms the job out to Quinn. Strange, who spends most of his free time coaching neighborhood kids in football, is on the hunt for a trio of hoodlums who’ve been causing trouble in his neighborhood. The leader, known as “D” (which stands for “Death”), prowls the football fields, and Strange must do everything in his power to protect his kids. Quinn follows up on his hunt for the runaway suburban girl turned hooker and is eventually led to Worldwide Wilson, a vicious pimp who will murder anyone who tries to take what’s his.

Strange and Quinn are by no means perfect heroes. Each must struggle with his own particular burden. Strange, who’s torn between a lasting love and an appetite for prostitutes, frequents the world of massage parlors. Quinn, who was stigmatized after killing a fellow police officer, has such a short fuse that he can rarely deal with the snitches he needs for information.

The author’s attention to the seamy side of Washington, D.C., is a powerful draw; its perverse aspects add credible facets to the protagonists and villains. The story flies by with such speed that you’ll suffer from friction burns from turning the pages so quickly. Once again, George Pelecanos proves eminently capable of turning in a cunningly crafted story that transcends the street-crime subgenre. Hell to Pay is a novel that works as an intense character portrait and leaves the reader moved and electrified. (Tom Piccirilli)

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