By Seth Weidenaar
The Cut is a new novel from George Pelecanos, a writer who launched himself to fame with the television series The Wire. Since I have spent a great part of the past few years watching The Wire, reading about The Wire, thinking about The Wire, and finally re-watching The Wire, I quickly pounced upon the opportunity to read a new Pelecanos offering. In The Cut I found a new character, Spero Lucas, who Pelecanos intends to turn into his serial detective, and several narrative tricks playing out upon the pages that I had read previously in other detective novels and seen previously on the screen in Pelecanos’s earlier work.
Spero Lucas is an ex-marine veteran who works part time for a Washington D.C. defense attorney. This attorney takes high profile murder and drug cases, using Lucas as an investigator. The rest of the time Lucas spends working as a private investigator, taking on any job that pays. This is the driving force behind The Cut, a midlevel marijuana dealer hires Lucas to retrieve a few parcels of stolen property for a cut of forty percent of the value of the parcel. The plot has enough twists and turns to keep the reader of detective novels happy and involved in the solution of the case. In the interest of heightening your interest, the plot involves drug dealers who can trace drug shipments with package tracking websites, and these traced packages are shipped to unsuspecting homes and then retrieved before the homeowner is aware. This system is far from perfect, and the right palms need to be greased, which leads to the disappearance of one of the packages.
Lucas appears to be a private investigator cut from the same cloth as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. These hardboiled investigators of the past always kept their cards close to their chest and followed a personal code of honor, which typically led them to the solution of whatever mystery they faced. Lucas has a similar code of honor, however, he is also a veteran of the Iraq war, something that differentiates him from hardboiled investigators of the past. The fact that Lucas saw action in Fallujah gives him a much more sinister edge than these previous detectives. When Lucas takes on the more sordid duties of his investigation he does them without flinching, and he leaves the actions in the past. Unlike Marlow and Spade who second-guess themselves throughout their respective novels.
Another great difference between Lucas and his historical counterparts is a piece of Pelecanos’s narrative mastery. Lucas comes from a Greek-American family, one of four adopted children, two white and two black. Lucas’s race is never firmly established throughout the novel. Nor is the race of his brother, a schoolteacher in Washington D.C. who plays a prominent role in the novel. This racial de-emphasis hearkens back to Pelecanos’s work on The Wire; in the show the citizens and police of Baltimore banded together for better or worse, a person was accepted for his or her personality and gifts rather than race. The Cut depicts family ties remaining strong or falling apart due to the personalities of the characters, not their race.
Pelecanos writes with an enormous knowledge of Washington D.C.’s geography. The narration knows every street, avenue, park, restaurant, bar, and warehouse in the city, and Lucas navigates them with ease. Just as The Wire explored seemingly every inch of Baltimore, so The Cut narrates every piece of Washington D.C. The familiarity with and the treatment of the city makes it a major character, one that Lucas manipulates and massages for the secrets required for the case.
Keeping true to his form in The Wire Pelecanos sends some unsuspecting characters into moments of peril in The Cut. One seventeen-year-old student, who likes to read books on film and dreams of someday making films, inhabits the novel’s pages. For most of the novel I felt myself drawn to the character, but like the adolescents of The Wire, I thought he was an accident waiting to happen. I was right, but his treatment in the conclusion of The Cut is not nearly as gut wrenching as The Wire’s young characters. Similar treatments meet the sleazy barons of crime who inhabit the novel. Pelecanos’s past narratives certainly helped to shape the movements of this current one.
The Cut offers a terrific new style hardboiled detective narrative. Unlike the works of the Hamment and Chandler, Pelecanos’s offering suggests a detective who is of an even harder-boil, and readers should be aware of this before beginning. There are a few unsettling moments in the novel, however, it is an exciting page-turner ready to entertain you through the holidays.