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Review: George Pelecanos has a winner with new crime novel, 'The Cut'
"The Cut" (Little, Brown and Co.), by George Pelecanos: At Thrillerfest, a crime writers conference held in Manhattan this summer, dozens of literary agents spent half a day listening to would-be authors pitch their ideas for books about grizzled Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who return to the states to fight crime.
To nearly all of them, the agents said thanks, but no thanks.
Agents attributed the flood of similar ideas to the success of Lee Child's novels about Jack Reacher, a war veteran who roams the country righting wrongs and then vanishing like a modern-day Lone Ranger.
But what seems like an overused idea can turn into something special in the hands of a master. Veteran crime novelist Ace Atkins proved it earlier this year with "The Ranger," the first in his series of novels about Quinn Colson, an Afghanistan war vet who returns to wipe out a criminal gang that was running roughshod over his rural Mississippi hometown.
Now George Pelecanos, proclaimed our greatest crime novelist by Stephen King, has proved it all over again with "The Cut," the first book in his new series featuring Spero Lucas, a 29-year-old Iraq war veteran who returns to his native Washington, D.C., to straddle both sides of the law.
Spero, the adopted child of a Greek-American couple, loves his mother and his black adopted brother, and is grieving for his father, who recently passed away. Spero is tough and courageous, and he has a big heart, but like many veterans, he's having trouble figuring out how to find a place in civilian life.
He's working as an investigator for a Washington criminal lawyer, a job that figures in a compelling subplot. But he also freelances, recovering stolen property in return for a 40 percent cut. And he'll work for anyone who agrees to pay.
One who does is Antwan Hawkins, a jailed, big-time drug dealer who is still running his illegal business from behind prison walls. Hawkins came up with a clever way to receive drug shipments from his supplier: He has packages of marijuana shipped to houses of people who are on vacation or away on business. A few of his cronies drop by the houses on the days of delivery and snatch the packages from the front steps.
It was working fine until someone else caught on and swiped a couple of valuable packages. So Hawkins hires Spero to steal them back. But what seemed to be a simple recovery job quickly turns sour as Spero's digging uncovers a double-dealing conspiracy. Soon, a pair of street dealers turn up dead, and Spero comes perilously close to joining them. Before it's over, he has to turn killer in an effort to save an innocent boy.
The story is beautifully told in the lean, muscular prose style that readers of the author's other fine novels, including "The Way Home" (2009) and "The Night Gardner" (2006), have come to expect.
"The Cut" is the 17th novel by Pelecanos, who has also written for two acclaimed HBO television series, "The Wire" and "Treme." In recent years, he has written mostly stand-alone crime novels, each with a unique protagonist, but he says he's not done exploring the possibilities of this new character.
Readers are sure to be eager for the next Spero Lucas adventure.
Bruce DeSilva is the author of "Rogue Island," which won the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for best first novel.