The Cut

  • George Pelecanos
  • Reagan Arthur Books
  • 304 pp.
  • September 8, 2011

An action-figure private investigator prowls the streets of D.C. in this launch of a new crime series.

Reviewed by Jud Ashman

What is the essence of a city?  How do you capture its culture, its voice, its humanity?

You might ask George Pelecanos, who has made a career of serving up the distinct flavors of certain urban areas. Well known and revered for his writing and production credits on what this reviewer considers television’s greatest-ever crime drama, “The Wire,” which took a national audience deep into the very marrow of Baltimore City, and now “Tremé,” which seeks to do the same for post-Katrina New Orleans, you might forget that Pelecanos cut his teeth writing numerous books that dug as deeply into the underbelly of his hometown, Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area.

The District of Columbia is, again, more than just a setting in Pelecanos’s latest effort, The Cut: It is a central figure. Pelecanos’s characters are as apt to allude to Kojo Nnamdi or the Redskins as they are to whatever situation is at hand. They eat half-smokes at local eateries, talk politics and local news in dialect, and decry the gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods. Twists and turns through D.C. and Silver Spring streets are recounted at a level of detail fit for Google Maps. (In fact, if the novel achieves popular success, it might easily be adapted to a series of geocache trails.)

Our protagonist is a young Iraq War veteran-turned-private investigator by the name of Spero Lucas. As the story begins, Lucas takes on a contract job for a defense attorney, digging up evidence to exonerate a young man accused of stealing a car. Turns out, the young man is the son of a well-known drug dealer who, impressed with Lucas’s work, offers to engage him to recover a presumed-stolen shipment of marijuana. “The Cut” of the title refers to Lucas’s fee for doing such recovery work, which amounts to 40 percent of the cash value of whatever is recovered. Lucas takes the job, and the story follows him through a number of twists and turns, a cast of women, crooked cops and friendly fellow veterans who aid him in his quest to recover the goods.

Spero Lucas, the character around which Pelecanos is planning to write a series of books, is an action-hero type, and decidedly not a man of introspection. Adopted into a Greek family as a young child, Lucas has turned out to be a cocky sort, although perhaps shaken by his war experiences in ways he is unaware of or unable to articulate. Morally unsettled, Lucas seems untroubled by the idea of working for criminals, willingly operates outside legal parameters, is emotionally unaffected by the deaths of associates and negates potential relationships by way of his promiscuity.

As is obvious from his previous work, Pelecanos has a flair for dialogue; throughout the book, it mostly sounds authentic and entertains while moving the story forward. Pelecanos is also adept at plotting twists and turns. The pacing and cleverness of the second half of the book, which is stronger than the first, will have readers eagerly turning pages.

But the book falls short in a couple of important ways. First, the writing is so terse, so simple, so bereft of metaphor and so dialogue-heavy (particularly in the first half) that its passages often read like stage directions, as if its original incarnation was as a screenplay and it was simply search-and-replace reformatted into a novel. An even more fundamental problem, however, is that the lead character isn’t all that compelling. The reading public loves flawed heroes, rife with demons and meaningful moral struggles and a humanity we can relate to. Many readers also enjoy demonstrations of specialized knowledge (as in Jack Ryan and Kay Scarpetta) and the relentless pursuit of justice (à la Sam Spade and Mike Hammer). We like to root for characters that have noble or exceptional goals ― and to see ourselves in their shoes.

Spero Lucas possesses none of the above. He is a young man who seems ignorant of, or uninterested in, any personal flaws. Although he does show cleverness and occasional wit, he demonstrates no real special expertise. He is not after any Holy Grail, or involved in any particularly noble pursuit; neither exorcising demons nor seeking redemption. Rather, his life and career seem to be purely products of happenstance.  He simply enjoys action, money and women. A reader might wonder: Why should I care?

“You’re either the most complicated guy I ever met or the simplest,” says one female companion. “I’m the simplest,” replies Lucas.

Unfortunately, he may be right. And that could be a serious shortcoming for a central character in a series.

If you have an abiding interest in the culture of Washington, D.C., if you enjoy the idea of seeing your neighborhood street or local watering hole or favorite Go-Go group in a cameo role in a mystery, or even if you just enjoy page-turning pulpy novels, this one is for you. But if you’re in the mood for something deeper, you may want to give this one a pass.

Jud Ashman is the founder and chair of the D.C. area’s hottest new literary event, the Gaithersburg Book Festival, next scheduled for May 19, 2012, when it will feature a stellar lineup of award-winning, best-selling authors on the grounds of Gaithersburg City Hall.

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