George Pelecanos has previously worked as a line cook, bartender, dishwasher, and shoe salesman. He has also achieved considerable critical success since the publication of his debut novel in 1992, and especially since his involvement as a writer on HBO’s seminal show The Wire. His books are known for their snappy dialogue and social commentary, which may be why Esquire magazine refers to him as the ‘poet laureate of the D.C. crime world’. On such an esteemed background the launch of a new detective series based in Washington ought to be cause for considerable excitement. Unfortunately, The Cut does not quite make the cut of Pelecanos’s best.
Spero Lucas is an Iraq war veteran who has carved out a living as an investigator for a defence lawyer. He’s 29, athletic, and, like so many of the author’s characters, has a penchant for soul music, which allows his author to smoothly segue into the story’s soundtrack, a chorus in counterpoint to his Greek descent and family relationships. When an incarcerated crime boss hires him to investigate a case of theft, Spero is soon embroiled in a world of guns, violence, and drugs. His interactions with two young drug dealers point to the futility of the war on drugs, an idea that Pelecanos has expounded at length throughout his career.
There is much to be admired in The Cut. Sections of the dialogue show Pelecanos at his best. Spero’s elder brother Leo, is a teacher and their conversations are familiar to anyone who has ever quarrelled with a sibling: “‘He’s already grown Ma,’ said Spero, passing the orzo to Leo. ‘He’s not gonna get taller if he eats more, he’s just gonna get fat’ … ‘That’s all muscle back there,’ said Leo. ‘That’s why I can’t wear those skinny Levis like you do. I got a man’s build.’” Such moments of domesticity are a trusted staple of Pelecanos’s character development, and once again they provide welcome relief from the genre’s tired and wired stereotypes in their cycles of gratuitous violence. When he even offers up a few choice reading references, Pelecanos is in his element, never more so than when Spero’s brother gets to read Elmore Leonard as a homework assignment.
In short, The Cut has much to celebrate, but several factors cloud if not collapse the central story arc. For instance, sections of the book read like an advertisement for Apple’s Iphone, and since Spero is so conspicuous in his overuse of the phone, the Hollywood product placement eventually eclipses his surveillance work. What is worse, while the novel’s main villain is suitably despicable, we never get the sense that he or his nefarious underlings might pose a viable threat to the war veteran. This comes as the actual surprise, since most of Pelecanos’s previous novels threatened their far from invincible protagonists with a violent dénouement. The absence of such ambiguity finally leads to another absence – that of his trademark tense atmosphere. Here’s hoping that the sequel drops the dross and picks up the pace.