"Wilder don't owe you but a hundred dollars, D."
"Thinks he can ignore his debt. Tryin' to take me for bad, you know I can't just let that go."
"Ain't like you need the money today or nothin' like that."
"It ain't the money," said Potter. "And I can wait."
"With a remarkable gift for finding the grist in a human wasteland, George Pelecanos has earned himself a permanent spot at the head of the table of noir fiction writers."
That's the brutal truth of life on the edge. It isn't about the money, it's about your rep. Garfield "Death" Potter and his buddies are prime examples of the predators that inhabit the mean streets of Washington, D.C. They own those streets and intend to keep it that way. Their lives revolve around sex, drugs, and guns, and violence permeates them all like a cancer. To survive in Potter's world, boys grow into men without any moral conscience and with a simple set of rules --- cross 'em and your dead. And while Potter's opening statements may make the fate of Lorenze Wilder clear, the events that unfold are far more complex and will ultimately ricochet throughout the entire community.
HELL TO PAY marks the second appearance of private investigator Derek Strange and his cohort, Terry Quinn. Strange is a middle-aged African-American with a good heart, a troubled soul, and an often mercurial relationship with his secretary/love interest Janine. Quinn is an Irish ex-cop whose dark history was the basis of the previous novel, RIGHT AS RAIN, in which he and Strange were introduced. But these two are not your typical salt and pepper team. They're both loners to a degree and wary of becoming too involved in each other's personal affairs. The delicate balance of their friendship weighs in often throughout the story with the ebb and flow of their personal and professional contact.
In this outing they become involved in the rescue of an underage prostitute who is being sought by two female investigators specializing in retrieval cases. Quinn handles the bulk of the legwork as his search pulls back the curtain on the nightmare world of teenage runaways and the pimps who enslave them. Despite his years as a street cop walking a beat in the grimmer environs of D.C., the plight of these young girls erodes whatever professional distance Quinn had hoped to maintain. Simultaneously, the events set in motion between Lorenze Wilder and Garfield Potter are simmering around the edges of Strange's life, which is already teetering on a slippery slope. When the violence finally erupts, it tears into the very heart of the community, and the aftermath becomes an all-too-familiar headline.
With a remarkable gift for finding the grist in a human wasteland, George Pelecanos has earned himself a permanent spot at the head of the table of noir fiction writers. His depiction of the savage neighborhoods of D.C. and those who populate them are his trademark, and though his in-your-face dialogue may take some getting used to, his characterizations enrich it with a deep literary texture. As Pelecanos continues to confront the grittier issues of humankind with his refreshing directness, readers will continue to find more than suspenseful fiction to chew on between the pages. HELL TO PAY lifts the lid on Pandora's Box, taking us into those dark chasms that most of us will hopefully never experience. It's taut, tough and unnerving --- and it's also one hell of a great read.
Reviewed by Ann Bruns (BkPageWC@aol.com) on January 22, 2011