Hard Revolution, by George Pelecanos

The Wild West comes to Washington DC
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The Independent Culture

The hero of George Pelecanos's new novel and I share one thing in common: our fathers took us to see just about every Western movie that played in the neighbourhood. Different neighbourhoods, same movies: John Wayne in Rio Bravo, Randolph Scott in Buchanan Rides Alone.

That Derek Strange grew up with a predilection for Westerns could be incidental, one of many cultural references (music, sport, cars) with which Pelecanos peppers his writing and which help, by accretion, to give us a detailed picture of his world. But it is more than that. As his girlfriend, Carmen, says to him, half-teasing: "you always did want to be like one of those dudes from those Westerns you love... A man who protects the community but can never be a part of it his own self."

The world is that of Washington DC, more specifically those parts of the capital city rarely if ever glimpsed in The West Wing. This is the DC of the urban working class - Greek, Italian, Irish, but predominantly black - and Derek Strange is a black police officer in a city where racial tensions constantly threaten to erupt and he is considered a traitor by many of his own community.

First seen as a 12-year-old, concerned with acceptance and identity, and flirting with petty crime, Strange hero-worships his elder brother, admires his father, and looks with respect at the only black policeman in the neighbourhood. "That's a man," he says to himself, "right there".

The second, longer, section of the novel takes place in the spring of 1968, during the weeks before and after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the riots and looting that tear the city apart. This part sees Strange standing with his mostly white fellow officers, trying to hold the line. "You're luckier than most," Carmen tells him, not without irony. "You're the man you wanted to be."

In 11 previous novels, using a technique which nails sturdy realism to narratives which often owe a great deal to Westerns themselves, George Pelecanos has charted the decline of the city in which he grew up and on the edge of which he continues to live. In the "DC Quartet", the three Nick Stephanos private-eye tales, and the later books featuring Derek Strange and his partner Terry Quinn, characters and places reappear and overlap, creating a dark mosaic of a world that we recognise and, sometimes unhappily, accept.

Hard Revolution is his most complex and complete, in many ways his most satisfying novel so far. Storylines jolt off at angles and then converge. Individual dramas are bound up and contained within wider political shifts and changes. There are no easy answers here, just poverty, waste, too little opportunity, too many fatherless children, and too many guns. And men, the best of them, standing up as best they can.

The reviewer's most recent novel is 'Flesh and Blood' (Heinemann)