Reading fiction is a form of escape, of course. If you want reality, you read nonfiction. But after reading SOUL CIRCUS, the latest novel from George P. Pelecanos, you may find yourself wondering what it is about reality that made you want to escape into a world so dark and disturbing and so, well, real.
The eleventh novel from Pelecanos and the third to feature private investigators Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, SOUL CIRCUS also includes a number of characters that have appeared in previous Pelecanos novels, including Nick Stefanos, another private detective whose character is based on Pelecanos himself.
SOUL CIRCUS finds Derek Strange searching for evidence that will mean the difference between life in prison and the death sentence for Granville Oliver, a dangerous gang leader and drug dealer on trial for murder. Strange has resolved to perform this service, despite Oliver's reputation, for a couple of worthwhile reasons, not the least of which is that decades before, while serving as a police officer, Strange killed Oliver's father. Strange feels that, in depriving Oliver of a father, he set a boy on the path to gangs, drugs, guns and violence, and therefore bears some responsibility for the situation in which Oliver now finds himself. But as Strange explains it to those who question his judgment in the matter, he is not defending Oliver --- he is defending Oliver's rights.
Strange's investigation leads him to a young woman who may have evidence that will keep Oliver off the injection table. But there are those who prefer to see Oliver dead and not just the prosecution. These people have long since rid themselves of the burden of conscience that might otherwise interfere with plans for kidnapping, extortion, murder and the other tools of the bad guy trade.
In the midst of this investigation, Strange and Quinn take on another small case: locating an absent girlfriend for Mario Durham, a petty crook and no deep thinker whose motives, unbeknownst to Strange and Quinn, have more to do with settling a score than they do with faltering romance. Mario, it turns out, is the brother of Dewayne Durham, another feared gang leader and drug dealer. It is Mario's desire to impress his brother that leads to the death of the absent girlfriend and sets in motion a series of events that trigger a cascade of gunplay and violence that winds its way back to Strange and Quinn.
SOUL CIRCUS intricately weaves several subplots into a taut and compelling story that plays out in neighborhoods of Washington D.C. that are so removed from the pomp and photo-op politics of the nation's capital that they might as well be in some third-world hellhole. Pelecanos very effectively demonstrates that living within sight of those familiar, gleaming white symbols of democracy are citizens whose voices are never heard and whose issues offer insufficient political payback to draw the attention of those in power.
But while Pelecanos has a political agenda, his message integrates seamlessly with the story. There's no preaching here and no soapbox --- just finely wrought characters playing out their interconnected destinies in prose that snatches you up and propels you along like a cigarette butt being washed down a storm sewer.
While the story is indeed dark and populated with cold, stone-hearted people, Pelecanos peppers SOUL CIRCUS with details and crisp, often funny dialogue --- particularly between Strange and Quinn -- that provide a precise balance of elements that keep the narrative well within the parameters of noir, without tumbling into a thoroughly depressing, hundred-proof nightmare. But be warned, there's enough violence and nasty business here to make you check to see that the cat is in and your doors are locked.
Readers already familiar with Pelecanos will find in SOUL CIRCUS the unblinking realism and relentless pace they have come to expect. Those new to Pelecanos will find themselves reaching eagerly into his backlist to devour every delicious, hyper-hardboiled scrap. As a vehicle for escape, SOUL CIRCUS will take you as deep into the urban battlefield as you can go without having to actually dodge bullets.
Reviewed by Bob Rhubart on February 1, 2004