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Soul Circus by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown and Co., 336 pages, $24.95) Now that he has arrived, George Pelecanos shows no signs of slowing down. The prolific crime fiction author of Washington, D.C., who has been written about in publications as tony as The New Yorker, revisits familiar territory in his most recent novel, Soul Circus. As usual, the writing is spare, the urban landscape is bleak, and Pelecanos’ indictment of the toxic stew of guns, drug dealing, and racial and economic inequality is even harsher than in his previous novels featuring the “salt and pepper” private investigative team of Derek Strange and Terry Quinn. (They first appeared in Right as Rain (2001), and more recently in Hell to Pay (2002); Pelecanos has written eight other books, as well.) The result is, as always, gripping. Well-written crime fiction exerts an almost magnetic pull. Since it is difficult to work on an airplane, or it’s just a few hours of vacation anyway, why not take up the latest book by Pelecanos (or James Ellroy, or Elmore Leonard)? Pelecanos now enjoys the recognition of those authors, but his voice and setting are distinct from theirs. Crime fiction is, after all, a form of regional literature. In his quartet of novels that includes L.A. Confidential, Ellroy envisions Los Angeles as an inferno, a city built upon the corruption intertwining those who serve (in particular the police) and their masters (organized crime and Hollywood). In his novels, Leonard visits Miami, Detroit, and Los Angeles, among other places, and surveys them with an ironic sense of cool. No one breaks a sweat in Leonard’s novels. Pelecanos is neither incendiary nor ironic. Instead he offers a slow burn on Washington, D.C., focusing his attention on the city outside the Capitol. Strange, an African-American, is a former police officer who now has his own successful private investigator business. Though not without his flaws, Strange maintains his cool under pressure. Quinn also was a police officer, but left after mistakenly shooting another officer. Still troubled by the incident, Quinn wrestles with Strange’s advice to keep his temper in check. In Soul Circus, Pelecanos engages two issues that are quite current for District residents: capital punishment and the flow of guns into the city from neighboring states. The plot is simple. Strange and Quinn take on an easy case — find a missing woman for a young man who says he misses his girlfriend — that has far-reaching consequences. They also become entangled in a turf war between two street gangs when Strange persists in helping a convicted drug dealer (Granville Oliver, introduced in Hell to Pay) who is on trial and facing the death penalty. One of the gangs has aligned itself with the dealer’s successor and is not very subtle in discouraging Strange’s efforts. The stories overlap, briefly, and along the way, Pelecanos paints a brief but by no means simple portrait of each of the characters swept up in the events. Although Pelecanos’ anger at the larger inequalities in American life is substantial and easy to discern, his novels focus on the difficult choices individuals must make in the course of everyday life. Strange, for example, knows that Oliver is guilty of many of the charges against him, and has had a devastating effect on the neighborhoods where his drugs were sold. But Strange opposes the death penalty and believes that he owes Oliver for a debt incurred many years ago, so he assists the drug dealer who is on trial for his life. Because Pelecanos is such a taut writer, his novels inspire an almost visceral reaction. Soul Circus is no exception. As Strange, Quinn, and their supporting cast do what the inhabitants of Pelecanos’ novels usually do — listen to music, eat, talk about movies, and try to kill one another — the vivid dialogue and short, direct descriptions of their actions is engaging. You experience a Pelecanos novel in your stomach as well as in your mind. This description of a meal nearly sent me to a diner in the middle of the night: “Quinn had a cheeseburger with mustard and fried onions only and a side of fries. Strange ate eggs over easy, grilled half smokes, and hash browns, his usual meal. Sitting across from them was Nick Stefanos. He had the half smokes and hash browns like Strange, but took his eggs scrambled with feta cheese. Both of them had scattered Texas Pete hot sauce liberally atop the dish.” Hemingway’s Nick Adams may have had a more healthy diet, but certainly not a more terse one. If there is not much variety in what people eat in Soul Circus, there is diversity in the music they listen to as they drive around or hang out in their houses. Derek Strange — older, more mature — favors classic soul music (the Stylistics, Al Green, the Spinners) and the interracial instrumental music of War. Terry Quinn — somewhat more troubled, definitely more volatile — reaches back for the classic rock of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. There are no surprises when violence erupts in Soul Circus, but the descriptions are still unsettling. Although Pelecanos does not spare the reader the gruesome details that accompany a shooting or a beating, he does not revel in his own Grand Guignol. For him, it’s just another way of emphasizing the consequences of, and accountability for, one’s actions. Pelecanos is unsparing in his depiction of crime and violence in the rougher parts of the city. But even in his descriptions of the bleakest parts of the city — and in its diners, athletic fields, and music clubs as well — it’s impossible not to see his love for Washington, D.C. He, too, is one of the city’s treasures, and deserves the highest compliment that can be paid to an author of pulp fiction: Soul Circus is worth buying in hardback. Rodger Citron is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

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