Soul Circus

by George P. Pelecanos

Published by Little, Brown and Company

352 pages, 2003






High-Wire Action

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


George Pelecanos' new Soul Circus is an action-packed, richly orchestrated book, as full of thought-provoking answers as the previous entry in his series about private eye Derek Strange (Hell to Pay, 2002) was of disturbing questions.

Soul Circus is perhaps the most mainstream novel yet from Pelecanos, whose initial crime fiction starred disaffected anti-heroes -- amateur and quasi-professional investigators with grim drug and alcohol problems, living at the fringes of Washington, D.C.'s vibrant jazz and rock music scenes. In the Strange series, Pelecanos puts forward a professional P.I., a black ex-cop struggling to define himself within a middle-class black community.

In the series debut, Right as Rain (2001), Strange forged a partnership with a young, embittered white ex-cop, Terry Quinn, to bring down an unsavory alliance of redneck and ghetto drug dealers. In Hell to Pay, Strange and Quinn confronted pimps, teenage gangstas and a high-living drug lord. At the same time, a host of inner demons tormented Strange with the possibility that he shared a deep and unsavory kinship with the criminals he pursued, evidenced by his chronic infidelity and his reluctance to be a father to his girlfriend's increasingly troubled teenage son.

Soul Circus marks a distinct shift for Strange, and for Pelecanos as a writer. The bitter, hard-boiled elements are still there, but look for them in the secondary characters. Strange married his longtime secretary and girlfriend, Janine Baker, at the close of Hell to Pay, and the marriage is still a happy one. At 54 years old, he seems to have accepted his role as a husband and stepfather to Janine's son, Lionel, and his dealings with young black men in the community are tinged with determination and purpose rather than anger and guilt. Now the torture visits his partner, Quinn, still unable to free himself from uncontrollable anger about a racial incident that ended his police career. And Nick Stefanos, the stoner P.I. from Pelecanos' earlier books, makes an intriguing reappearance.

Soul Circus begins where Hell to Pay left off, with the sinister drug lord Granville Oliver on trial in federal court. Oliver is charged with racketeering and violent crime -- a combination that entitles the feds to seek the death penalty under the RICO Act. Strange has been hired by Oliver's defense team to dig up exonerating evidence. Oliver, a master manipulator, is able to unnerve Strange, even in a jail interview room:

"They want to erase me, Strange. Make it so I don't exist any more. The same way they keep poor young black boys and girls out of the public's eye today, the same way they did me when I was a kid. Warehousin' me and those like me down in the Section Eights. Now the government wants to bring me out and make an example of me for a hot minute, then make me disappear again. And I'm a good candidate, too, ain't I? A strong young nigger with an attitude. They want to strap me on that table in Indiana and give me that needle and show people, that's what happens when you don't stay down where we done put you. That's what happens when you rise up. They want to do this to me bad. So bad that they'd fuck with someone who was trying to help me stop it, hear?"

You left out the part about all the young black men you killed or had killed, thought Strange. And the part about you poisoning your own community with drugs, and ruining the lives of all the young people you recruited, and the lives of their families. But there was some truth in what Granville Oliver was saying, too. Strange, following a personal policy, did not comment either way.

"So I was just wondering," said Oliver. "When they try to shake you down -- and they will -- are you going to stand tall?"

"Don't insult me," said Strange. "And don't ever let me get the idea that you're threatening me. 'Cause I will walk. And you do not want me to do that."

Strange kept this voice even and his shoulders straight. He hoped his anger, and his fear, did not show on his face. Strange knew that, even from in here, Oliver could have most anyone killed out on the street.

Oliver's former right-hand man, Phil Wood, is the prosecution's key witness. Oliver urges Strange to locate Devra Stokes, a young woman formerly with their operation who once filed a brutality complaint against Wood. She could testify that Wood himself had planned, and likely carried out, at least one of the murders for which the feds have charged Oliver. But she's refusing to talk. She's living the straight life now and she and her young son have been intimidated into silence by Wood's criminal associates on the outside, members of a gang headed by the chillingly brutal Horace McKinley.

Meanwhile, Strange has assigned Quinn to finish up an odd missing-person case, unaware that it will soon be linked to the Devra Stokes case through the city's pervasive gang network. Mario Durham, a homely, slightly dim young black man, has hired Strange Investigations to find his vanished girlfriend, Olivia Elliot. Mario tells them he's concerned about her, but in truth he's packing a borrowed gun and looking for revenge -- after sweet-talking him into setting her up as a dealer, Olivia has dumped him and taken off with their stash. And he's the brother of Dewayne Durham, the up-and-coming leader of the gang that is competing with McKinley's for control of the city drug trade. Quinn tracks the larcenous Olivia down by tricking her little boy into giving away her address, but doesn't feel good about it. His suspicions are borne out when Olivia turns up dead in a city park, beaten and riddled with bullet holes. The resulting anger and guilt badly blur Quinn's judgment, but Strange, though he's accustomed to Quinn's short-fused temper, fails to notice in time to prevent another violent death.

When it comes to D.C.'s criminal subculture, Pelecanos gets it -- and delivers it to the reader without a scintilla of stereotype. Meet Ulysses Foreman, the savvy black ex-cop-turned-illegal-gun dealer, living a house-proud suburban existence with his chubby white girlfriend. His number comes up when he rents a gun to the dorky Mario. Meet Mario's handsome younger brother, Dewayne, a savvy leader with a powerful if misguided work ethic. Dewayne prides himself on treating their churchgoing mother to a lifestyle of designer clothes and diamond bracelets. As the trigger-happy Quinn heads for a showdown with the gang members who've dissed him, Pelecanos uses Quinn's worsening eyesight (he is losing his distance and night vision) as the perfect metaphor for his loss of professional perspective.

Key to Pelecanos' style is omniscient narration by a voice not unlike that of Derek Strange. Phrases reminiscent of police reports ("incident" and "blood was visibly smudged") appear, as do phrases that give the narrator away as black or some type of hipster: Quinn's girlfriend, Sue Tracy, had "come up" in the D.C. punk movement; Strange "locked the house down" and certain music "cooled him out." Dialogue and interior monologue are astutely handled through use of key phrases, syntax and punctuation, avoiding the sort of well-intentioned mess that results when an author tries to convey a dialect phonetically. When Granville Oliver asks Strange, "Are you standing tall?" Pelecanos has his narrator right there to slip the reader the translation: "Oliver was questioning Strange's loyalty."

Soul Circus is powered by the utterly believable people in its pages, from the unexpectedly courageous Devra to the pair of fresh-from-the-country gangsta-wannabes who unwittingly kick off a full-scale war between the Durham and McKinley gangs. Every character Pelecanos introduces is critical to this story; don't take your eyes off the page for a moment. | March 2003


Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.