June 29, 11.45am
About six months ago I found myself in Hay-on-Wye, the used book capital of the UK, and wondering into a store promising that every book on display was on sale for a £1. Despite signs on every wall reaffirming this offer, I couldn't quite believe it, such was the quality of the (mostly) paperbacks on offer. I filled up on Joe R Lansdale (more of whom another time) and one or two others, including John Connor and Steve Mosby from Orion's fresh blood series of a couple of years back.
What really surprised (and disappointed) me was the number of George Pelecanos books available - at least half a dozen different titles, mostly recent works such as Hard Revolution and Drama City. Given that I already owned every book Pelecanos has written I didn't buy any more, although I was tempted to stock up and send copies out to friends and family.
Seeing his name on books being sold for £1 made me wonder for the umpteenth time exactly why Pelecanos hasn't found the sort of following in the UK that his work so richly deserves.
The Night Gardener is Pelecanos' 13th slice of life in the Washington DC that we do not see in our nightly news bulletins from the Capitol or the White House (something that was initially a source of disappointment as I had hoped I'd found an author who would offer a peak into the corridors of power an expose the corruption, greed and ambition lurking within).
Instead Pelecanos theme has always been the struggle of the everyman, be he thief, cop, record shop sales assistant, drug dealer, restauranteur or private eye painted on the canvass of a city with some of the worst social problems and crime in the western world.
In The Night Gardener, the discovery of the body of a murdered teenage boy revives fears that a long dormant serial killer is back at work and brings together three men: TC Cook, a retired detective haunted by that case; Gus Ramone a ram-rod straight senior police officer working the new murder and his disgraced former beat partner (they "secured the perimeter" at one of the orignal crime scenes) Dan Holliday, who left the force under a cloud for a new and unsatisying life as a driver.
Running in parallel to their stories, occasionally crossing lines, is the savage story of Brock, a street punk wannabe heading at breakneck speed for life in "the life" and his cousin, a convicted criminal on parole, trying desperately to head in the opposite direction.
With these characters, Pelecanos creates first a mystery story - and a compelling one at that - but more importantly a fascinating pastiche of life on the edge. Ramone on the edge of his ambition, Cook of his life, Holliday of alcoholism and depression, Ramone's teenage son (a friend of the murdered boy) and the two cousins on the edge of decisions that will determine how (and even if) they will live their lives.
The result is an extraordinarily engaging and often moving series of small dramas that probes doggedly into the heart of humanity examining our motives and passions, hopes and fears.
Those who have read Pelecanos' earlier novels will know that he is not exactly sentimental - his books are filled with a lot of unpleasantness and violence, and a lot of good and innocent people die - but what I like about him as that he gives his characters a chance. They are not locked automatically into pre-ordained destinies, but given real, often agonising, choices. So it is in The Night Gardener, a cracking good novel that will not, I suspect, earn the audience it deserves.
The Night Gardener is published in the UK by Orion Books on August 10.