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the double

21 may 2014

The Double is the second of George Pelecanos's Spero Lucas novels – why do I never seem to be able to read a mystery series in sequence? :) Not having read The Cut, the 2011 novel that introduced Lucas, I can't say whether the character definitively turns a corner in The Double. But a little over halfway through, Spero Lucas certainly seems to morph from standard-issue nosy private eye to all-out avenger of wrongs. He manages still to sleep at night, but if I were a bad guy anywhere near Pelecanos's fictional Washington DC, I wouldn't.

Spero Lucas is the adoptive son of Greek-Americans; his widowed mother cooks dishes to die for and gently fusses over her ex-Marine, riskfully employed grown boy. Spero is white, though I swear I had to read a review of The Cut to ascertain that fact. Part of this is just my readerly obliviousness, but part is surely deliberate. Spero's brothers are black; half his friends are, too. American readers frequently assume that "unmarked" characters are by default white, but that's not the case in Pelecanos's fiction. His contemporary Washington is a city recently almost entirely black that is reintegrating by leaps and bounds. The diverse social terrain of the capital is one of its facts of life, both a positive sign and a source of new confusions and dangers. Several key characters are never described in terms of color or ethnicity, and one is free to imagine them in various physical ways, or perhaps simply to concentrate on them as characters instead of racial representatives. And as I've noted, even the hero's color is lightly invoked, mostly by contrast.

I've now doubled my lifetime reading experience of Pelecanos, but from this limited experience I can divine some signature features: a concern with the precise details of neighborhoods, music, and weaponry; dialogue boiled for about thirteen minutes; cheapness of human life. Many of the lives taken in the course of The Double are cheap because they were worthlessly led to begin with. But here and there come insights into the humanity even of remorseless sociopaths. One of the villains was abused as a child, hardly exonerating him but helping elaborate his character and his motives. Another's problems go deeper; he too had a tragic childhood, but there's something soulless about Billy King that worries even the other bad guys. And yet when Billy is cleaning out his room in his safe house after some mayhem, he finds

a shoe box that had once held his first pair of Chuck Taylors. In it were the things that meant the most to him since his childhood. A baseball signed by an Atlanta Brave, a buffalo nickel coin collection, a pen with multicolored ink that he'd saved up for as a kid …
Everybody has such a shoebox. But we sometimes forget that everybody has one. It's to Pelecanos's credit that, even in an over-the-top thriller, he doesn't forget.

Pelecanos, George. The Double. New York: Little, Brown [Hachette], 2013. PS 3566 .E354D68