Tuesday, March 18, 2003

'Circus' digs deep into crimey muck

Detective, not plot, moves reader along

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Go figure.

Here's author George Pelecanos saying in one breath how much he hates continuing characters in mysteries. "I think series books are a bad idea because there's never any real danger to the protagonist ... it kills the suspense from page one, because you know he'll be OK."

But in the next breath, Pelecanos is promoting Soul Circus, his third Derek Strange mystery - and admitting he has wrapped up the series' fourth book.

"There is a lot to his character I felt I needed to look into before letting him go," is his quick explanation for the difference between what he says and what he writes.

  George Pelecanos signs Soul Circus at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Books & Co., 350 E. Stroop Road, Kettering, (937) 298-6540; and at 7 p.m. Thursday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Pavilion, Edwards and Madison roads, Norwood, 396-8960.
The Motown loving, pee-wee football-coaching private investigator is the soul of Soul Circus, a force so strong that the pile-up of murders, drug deals and beatings enrich the novel but don't move it forward.

Only Strange does that, making Soul a member of an elite club - a character-driven mystery.

Soul is set in Washington, D.C.'s inner city, a world where drugs, murder and stolen guns are taken for granted, even among children as young as 10.

It's a place, where everyone's "time was gonna come. No one in this game, be he gun dealer or gang leader or dope salesman, lasted forever. It could be the police or someone younger, stronger or crazier than you."

Soul opens where Hell to Pay, Pelecanos' last novel, left off: Granville Oliver, the gang leader, drug overlord and murderer Strange helped nail in Hell, is on trial for his life. But instead of gathering evidence against him, Strange and sidekick Terry Quinn are trying to keep Granville off death row.

The investigation leads them deeper into the muck pit full of dark and dangerous souls: Ulysses Foreman, the ex-cop who sells guns to gangs; Dewayne Durham and Horace McKinley, rival gang leaders whose followers kill each other for sport; Mario Durham, Dewayne's skinny brother who wears Deion Sanders jerseys - same one, two and three weeks at a time - and beats women to death.

Can there be any doubt that all these forces would one day collide with Strange smack in the middle? None.

But first we get Derek chasing leads down dark alleys, digging up lost witnesses, inching slowly closer to the truth.

Along the way, he gets beaten up, shot, burglarized, threatened, framed and berated by the feds, all the while worrying about his new wife and what happens when the drug wars get really nasty.

It's nerve-wracking stuff but not in the manner of most mysteries.

There are no cliff-hanging chapter endings, no wondering who dunnit, no following cops on a painstaking journey from clue to clue as they unravel the mystery.

You know most everything almost from page one, which may sound like a drawback but it isn't. Not when Pelecanos is providing his brutal insights into the grimy, crimey minds of drug lords and their soldiers.

It's something he can do and carry off because he has walked the walk.

"I'm a heavy researcher. I spent weeks and weeks in the inner city, hanging out, meeting the people ... I feel it would be disrespectful to them if I didn't get it right.

"And I keep thinking every time I go into the field that I'll find some hope there, too."

Actually there is hope to be found in Soul Circus.

There's hope for Robert Gray, the teenager Strange pulled out of Granville's network.

There's hope for Lionel, a teenager from the projects who works for Strange as an office boy.

And there's hope for Devra, the witness who stands up to a knife-wielding Horace because it's the right thing to do.

Three kids. Not great odds in a city of millions but it keeps Strange going.

It keeps Pelecanos going, too. "I do my research, and I see the things that turn up in my books. The very bleak despair is there, but also now and then there's that glimmer of hope."

George Pelecanos signs Soul Circus at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Books & Co., 350 E. Stroop Road, Kettering, (937) 298-6540; and 7 p.m. Thursday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Pavilion, Edwards and Madison roads, Norwood,


E-mail jknippenberg@enquirer.com

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