Book: Right as Rain

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Right as Rain

Author: George P. Pelecanos
Publisher: Warner Books

Derek Strange is an ex-cop who now runs his own private detective agency. The mother of a young police officer killed by another cop hires him to clear up the lingering doubts surrounding her son’s death. Although Terry Quinn, the other cop, has been cleared in the official investigation, his guilt torments him. After Strange interviews him, Quinn joins the investigation, even though in part he is investigating himself and whether his own prejudices led him to pull the trigger.

Strange and Quinn seek their answers in the darkest sectors of Washington, D.C., where racism and ruthless capitalism create a lawless world. This is a brilliant and savage thriller by the writer the Washington Post has called a fresh, new, utterly hard-boiled voice


George Pelecanos’s Washington, D.C., is a far cry from the upwardly mobile, tourist-attraction-speckled enclave of Margaret Truman (Murder at the National Cathedral, Murder in Georgetown). Pelecanos’s capital is a haunting terrain of drugs and death, a no man’s land of posturing dealers and skeletal warehouses that shelter their buyers:

A rat scurried into a dim side room, and a withered black face receded into the darkness. The face belonged to a junkie named Tonio Morris. He was one of the many bottom-of-the-food-chain junkies, near death and too weak to cut out a space of their own on the second floor; later, when the packets were delivered to those with cash, they’d trade anything they had, anything they’d stolen that day, or any orifice on their bodies for some rock or powder.

When PI Derek Strange is hired by Chris Wilson’s mother to find out why her son, a black cop, was killed by a white cop, Terry Quinn, on a dark night in that no man’s land, Strange figures that the answer is painfully clear: a typical case of mistaken identity, fueled by the assumptions and preconceptions of Quinn’s innate racism. But what Strange finds is a tentative kinship with Quinn, who is desperate to proclaim himself “color-blind.” Kicked off the force and convinced that there’s more to his own story, Quinn asks to join Strange in his investigation. As the two pry into the past, drifting through the neighborhoods both men have known all their lives, they find themselves enmeshed in a tangle of cold-blooded competition and heated personal enmity.

Pelecanos generally has a light touch with the treacherous quagmire of -isms, veering only occasionally into sententious meanderings about the consequences of an economically and racially divided society. His wry humor, particularly in his descriptions of Earl and Ray, the heroin middlemen who bring the concept of white trash to a depressingly low level, leavens the novel’s noir bleakness. And Strange himself is a compelling character: a middle-aged black man who has seen more of life’s callousness than he cares to admit, and whose jitteriness about personal commitment speaks volumes about his own expectations for happiness. A strong character and a good read—Pelecanos fans can settle in and look forward to Strange’s next appearance. —Kelly Flynn

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Having completed his cycle of Nick Stefanos novels with 2000’s Shame the Devil, George Pelecanos—one of the classiest crime writers working in America today—has now embarked on a brand-new series. The opening volume, Right as Rain, is set, like most of Pelecanos’s fiction, in the gritty, violent milieu of contemporary Washington, D.C. Ostensibly a private-eye novel, Right as Rain is a serious, troubling work that deals with murder, drug abuse, racial tension, cultural identity, urban decay, and problematic personal relationships of every sort. Crime fiction rarely gets more ambitious, or provocative, than this.

Two very different figures dominate the narrative. The first is Derek Strange, a middle-aged black ex-policeman who has successfully operated his own detective agency (Strange Investigations) for nearly 30 years. The second is Terry Quinn, a young white man who resigned from the police force in the aftermath of a controversial shooting. In the final hours of a late-night patrol, Terry shot and killed an apparently crazed young black man who was holding a gun on an unarmed white man. The black man was later identified as off-duty policeman Chris Wilson. Right as Rain begins when Wilson’s mother hires Strange to investigate the circumstances surrounding that shooting and to restore her son’s good name.

Shortly afterward, Strange forms an unlikely alliance with Quinn. Their joint investigation takes them into the heart of the Washington drug culture and brings them into contact with a vivid array of characters on both sides of the law. Included among them are an insulated, untouchable drug lord named Cherokee Coleman; an assortment of policemen, corrupt and otherwise; and a pair of hapless redneck father-and-son drug mules that Elmore Leonard would be proud to call his own. They also encounter the

wretched inhabitants of a Washington “junkyard,” a decaying tenement populated by burned-out, dying heroin addicts. One of the inhabitants is Sondra Wilson, Chris’s hopelessly addicted sister. Sondra’s story stands at the heart of the narrative and gradually illuminates the unanswered questions surrounding her brother’s death.

Like Elmore Leonard’s City Primeval, Right as Rain is a kind of latter-day urban western, played out against an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. It’s exciting, moving, unsentimental fiction distinguished throughout by its bleak evocation of the darkest corners of the urban jungle, and by its subtle, carefully shaded portrayal of race relations in contemporary America.

If you haven’t encountered George Pelecanos before, then please don’t wait any longer. Right as Rain is an ideal place to begin. —Bill Sheehan

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