With the publication of his latest book HARD REVOLUTION, George Pelecanos has written an even dozen novels. Yet he is not as well known as some of his less prodigious and, alas, less talented brethren. Perhaps HARD REVOLUTION will change that.
Pelecanos's Washington, D.C. is not that of the edifices and facades of government; rather, he walks the streets that aren't mentioned in any guidebooks. His last three novels --- RIGHT AS RAIN, HELL TO PAY and SOUL CIRCUS --- have centered on an ex-D.C. police officer named Derek Strange who runs Strange Investigations, a private detective agency. HARD REVOLUTION is a prequel to this series looking at Strange's life as a child in the late 1950s and his experiences as a rookie policeman in 1968 when social upheaval on several different levels was reaching its boiling point. Looking at this Strange will give readers a lot of insight into the character that they have come to know.
Those who come to HARD REVOLUTION with expectations of a straight crime novel will be disappointed; those who read it without expectations will be amply rewarded. We first meet Strange as a twelve-year-old, shortly before the occurrence of a pivotal moment that sets him on the course for his future as a Washington, D.C. policeman. What's also clear is that Strange's parents are his strongest and longest lasting influence. They are hardworking people whose moral compass is a beacon for Strange and a burden that Dennis, his less-fortunate older brother, is unable to live up to. Pelecanos uses almost the first quarter of the book to introduce Strange, his family and a cast of supporting characters. Some readers may find that these chapters drag in spots, but they are extremely well written and ultimately are critical to what is to follow.
Pelecanos then jumps ahead to spring 1968, when the nation is torn apart by the Vietnam War and racial issues. Strange, now a rookie policeman, is dealing with issues on a number of fronts. As a black police officer, he has few friends in the urban community, subsisting primarily on the camaraderie of a few of his fellow officers, the pride of his family and the erstwhile love of a woman to whom he is unable to commit. Strange also is concerned for his brother Dennis, whose companions include a sociopath named Alvin Jones who swims like a shark through the sea of urban D.C.
Strange also meets a veteran police officer named Frank Vaughn, a deeply flawed man who is at the same time a good cop. When a young black man is killed in what appears to be a deliberate hit-and-run accident, Vaughn's quiet sense of outrage cannot let the matter rest, even though he is hardly a politically correct civil rights advocate. Vaughn's determination to bring the perpetrators to justice crosses paths with Strange's quiet determination to do well in the middle of riot-torn D.C. during an armed bank robbery. When events ultimately bring Strange to pursue vengeance, Vaughn is there to show him how the job gets done. The result is a conclusion that will leave neither man quite the same.
Pelecanos's description of the era in which HARD REVOLUTION is set is simply first-rate. While it is relatively easy to get the large details right, it is the way that Pelecanos fills in the nooks and crannies of the era that lends this work its air of authenticity. Pelecanos is particularly dead-on with respect to the local D.C. music scene during the era --- I had forgotten how influential the musicians in the D.C. and Virginia areas had been during the late 1950s --- as well as the national television scene. That Darius Strange, father to Derek and Dennis, is a huge fan of television westerns is a nice touch.
One of the most interesting aspects of HARD REVOLUTION is the introduction of Vaughn. One would hope that Pelecanos's future plans include another novel with Vaughn as at least a secondary character, if not the primary protagonist. However, Pelecanos's extensive bibliography should keep everyone busy until that particular issue is addressed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 1, 2004