THE NIGHT GARDENER, the fourteenth novel from award-winning author George Pelecanos, offers yet more evidence of a writer at the top of his game.
The title refers to a series of murders in 1985 that forms the back story to this novel. The victims were all teenagers, their bodies found in public gardens. The detective assigned to those cases was T.C. Cook, a legend among his peers and the object of the admiration of two very different patrolmen, Gus Ramone and Doc Holiday, who are on the scene of what appears to be the last of the Night Gardener murders to handle crowd control.
Fast-forward 20 years and Gus Ramone, now a hard-working, straight-arrow homicide detective in the District of Columbia's Violent Crime Bureau, is happily married and the loving father of two children. Ramone has played by the rules and built a life that is comforting, if not entirely comfortable. A white man married to a black woman, Ramone struggles to balance his career responsibilities with those of raising a happy, healthy and secure family in a society whose borders are defined by middle-class hypocrisy on one side and urban crime and violence on the other. In the confluence of those forces, Ramone's teenaged son, Diego, struggles to define himself, his passage into manhood a tightrope walk between the shadows and the light of contemporary society.
In contrast to Gus Ramone, Doc Holiday has taken a different path. His passion for police work and admirable if prestige-driven career goals have fallen prey to personal sensibilities that are the polar opposite of Ramone's. Holiday's law enforcement career ended when he left the force rather than face an Internal Affairs investigation headed up by Gus Ramone. Holiday now earns his living as a private chauffer, his free time invested in too much booze, meaningless one-night stands and frequent, bitter consideration of what might have been.
T.C. Cook is now a widower, and each achingly slow day of his retirement is like the last, marked by loneliness and by resignation to the aftereffects of a stroke that, while relatively minor, do far more damage to his wounded psyche as regular reminders of what he once was.
When the body of a teenaged boy, an acquaintance of Ramone's son, is found in a public garden, the forensic evidence and circumstances of the boy's death bear too strong a resemblance to the now 20-year-old Night Gardener murders. The case becomes the catalyst that draws Ramone, Holiday and Cook into a discomfiting and uneasy reunion, where the regrets of the past and the possibilities of the future intersect.
THE NIGHT GARDENER is as fine an example of crime fiction as one is likely to find. But to pigeonhole this book in even that well-respected genre is to do Pelecanos an injustice. The richness of color and detail, the power and pacing of the narrative, and the story's emotional depth place Pelecanos squarely in the company of John Le Carre, Richard Price, and a handful of others whose skill transcends the confines of genre. Pelecanos has produced a crime novel that rewards readers with an experience that satisfies on a level not limited to mere entertainment.
Reviewed by Bob Rhubart on January 13, 2011
The Night Gardener