I originally reviewed The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos on October 17th, 2006
The first chapter is brilliantly written and is one of the finest passages in a mystery novel that I have ever read. It opens on a crime scene in 1985 with a veteran police officer investigating a murder of a child that may have been committed by a serial killer. The names of all the children murdered have been palindromes. We are also introduced to two rookie patrolmen keeping the crowd back. The entire scene is like a complex symphony being orchestrated by a master. The detached third person narration is like a camera that floats freely over the scene. The final line is a haunting and elegiac lament for simpler times, when anything was possible and before the harder realities of life hits. You see the crack epidemic started in 1986 causing murder and crime rates to skyrocket with the onslaught of drug wars and addiction with the result being that from that day forward the death of a child no longer held relevance. The year 1985 was carefully chosen by Mr. Pelecanos.
The story picks up again 20 years later with a fresh murder of a young high school boy. One of the officers on the case, who was one of the rookie patrolmen introduced to us in the prologue, knew the boy personally, including his palindromic name. This simple event sets up the eventual reunion of the three officers from that fateful day 20 years ago. One is a successful Homicide detective, happily married with two children, one owns his own business after quitting the force under a cloud of suspicion, and the other is long retired but still obsessed with the big case that he wasn’t able to close.
The hallmark of a Pelecanos novel is the fully developed, real characters. He is a master of infusing not only his main characters but his supporting and minor characters with so much realism that they jump off the page. No character in a Pelecanos book will ever be painted with simplistic “good guy” vs. “bad guy” notions. In the real world such distinctions never exist. Even the smallest of characters are painted so effectively that there isn’t a false note in the bunch. Pelecanos is a life long resident of the D.C. area and has a natural ear for realistic dialogue that shows on every page of his novels whether it’s the corner boys, the guys at the neighborhood bar, the grieving parents or the cops. It’s safe to say that he writes the best dialogue in the business. Here is a brief two line example between Ramone, the cop assigned to the case, and his longtime partner.
“Is it that time of the month?” said Ramone.
“You mean that time of the month when you start talking ignorant?”
In two lines you know their rapport with each other, that they have been partners for awhile, that they are comfortable with each other and a lot more.