About 20 years ago, the book collector’s magazine “First” published an impressive article on George Pelecanos, a new writer that was not only imminently collectable, but was (in their opinion) destined to “change the face of crime fiction.” That was the start of my admiration for Pelecanos. Quite honestly, I found the novels consistently brilliant, especially his early works like A Firing Offense, Shoedog and Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go.
Many successful writers prefer to set their novels in their “signature” location: T. Jefferson Parker frequently uses Orange County, Calif.; James Lee Burke loves Louisiana; Many of Dennis Lehane’s characters are at home on the back streets of Boston; and Carl Hiassen (like the late Charles Williford) prefers Miami.
Pelecanos’ turf is Washington, D.C., and his characters move, fight, love and murder each other in the labyrinthine streets of the capital city. In fact, reading a Pelecanos novel is like taking a tour of D.C.’s nightclubs and restaurants while Spero Lucas does a running commentary on the city’s polyglot cuisine, music and crime as he rides his bicycle from Dupont Circle down Georgia Avenue.
However, Spero is a unique creation. Home from Iraq with a lot of bad memories, he quickly becomes a successful cop, but he has what could be described as an unstable “moral compass.” He frequently finds that he has little patience with a spectrum of petty crimes — marijuana (Spero smokes pot himself) and prostitution seem irrelevant in a city filled with violence and mayhem. Due to his training, Spero can kill with speed and efficiency. In addition, he is never troubled with guilt or misgivings since he only kills people who are intent on killing him.
Oddly enough, Spero is a devoted son who spends generous amounts of time with his Greek family, especially his brother Le, who is a school teacher. Still distraught over his father’s death, he makes frequent trips to the cemetery to deliver flowers. There is also a host of relatives and neighbors that are a vital part of Spero’s life -— relationships that this hardened cop values.
When the narrative of The Cut moves abruptly from Spero, the mindful son who engages in affectionate repartee with his brother, to Spero, the unemotional killer (his hands are truly lethal weapons and his ability to utilize fire arms is awesome), the transition is unnerving. Perhaps what is most troubling is Spero does not hesitate to violate the very laws he has sworn to enforce ... if the need arises.
Consider the significance of the title. The Cut refers to Spero’s portion of an illegal activity. Spero agrees to enter into an agreement with Anwan Hawkins, a known trafficker of marijuana, who has developed an inventive way to transport his product: He simply mails it by FedEx to an address where he knows the resident will not be home. Then, the party purchasing the marijuana arrives with a van and hauls the delivery away ... usually within minutes of delivery. The resident never knows that his address has been used. A problem arises when “someone” arrives and picks up the package (worth about $130,000) and drives away. Anwan asks Spero to find out who is stealing his pot. Spero readily agrees since he has no moral qualms about trafficking in marijuana anyway. His “cut” will be 30 percent of the marijuana’s value ($50,000).
Why does Spero do it? That is a good question and I’m not sure Pelecanos provides us with an answer. Perhaps it is his expensive lifestyle, since he is part of what appears to be a kind of D. C. “cult” about dress: Spero wears Carhartt clothing and Wolverine boots. Every item (shirts, watches, automobiles) is selected for the prestige of the brand name. Spero loves good food and music. Many of the juveniles that Spero encounters conform to the same “cult” — some even wearing clothing with highly visible price tags and brand names. Tastes in music and sports are regulated in the same manner.
However, the problem in The Cut is more serious than FedEx pot and clothing styles. Two amiable young men, Tavon Lynch and Avon Davis, have the highly profitable job of picking up the FedEx packages for Anwan Hawkins and allegedly find that someone had beat them to it.
When Tavon and Avon are murdered, Spero suddenly finds that he is no longer a part of a questionable activity involving stolen pot. The stakes are suddenly much higher, and Spero’s investigation brings him into conflict with a crime figure (who is a former policeman) known as Rooster Holley, a repugnant man who has surrounded himself with a half-dozen assassins. When the situation escalates, Spero intuitively knows that not only is his life at risk, but also the lives of his family and even his neighbors. His warfare background tells him that not only must he strike first, but that his enemies must be totally eradicated.
In many ways, The Cut is a disturbing book — not because of the violence and brutality depicted, but because of “the message.” Spero can dispatch a would-be assassin with his hands. He can acquire illegal firearms (with serial numbers removed), slaughter a half dozen vicious criminals, and then throw all of the guns into a river ... just like a criminal would do. If need be, he calls “friends” to assist him — men who bear the scars of warfare, but will guard Spero’s back in the same manner that they would have do so in Iraq or Vietnam. Spero is subject to “urges” ... a compulsive need to complete grueling physical exercise (a 25-mile bike trip), to have sex, or to confront a force that threatens his family. There are times when his behavior resembles that of a predator rather than an investigator. He knows how to move quietly in the dark.
To me, the problem is the uncertain wavering of Spero’s “moral compass.” Is it possible that our most effective defenders — those who stand between us and chaos — are men who are very similar to those who threaten us? I am reminded of James Elroy’s novels that often conclude by revealing that the only difference between the cops and the criminals are the uniforms. Should our anxiety be relieved by the fact that Spero is not a total brute? He is capable of love, compassion and loyalty. He is, undeniably on our side. Is that enough? Should we admire him?
The Cut by George Pelecanos. Little, Brown & Company, 2011. 292 pages