Monday, May 27, 2013

Nick Stefanos Goes Down to the River

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

First published in 1995, this is the third and final installment of George Pelecanos's series featuring Nick Stefanos. In the opening book,A Firing Offense, Nick left his job at Nutty Nathan's electronics store and got his license as a P.I. But as this book opens, Nick, who has a major drinking problem, is supporting himself by tending bar at The Spot, a somewhat less-than-genteel establishment. Being a P.I. is still something of a sideline for Nick.

At this point, Nick is dating a woman probably better than he deserves and who is also developing a significant problem with booze herself. Needless to say, Stefanos is not the best influence in this regard. One night, Nick goes on a hellacious bender and winds up dead drunk, down by the Anacostia River. During the course of the night, a car pulls up near the spot where Nick has passed out. He awakens sufficiently to hear two men drag a third out of a car and shoot him. Nick can't raise his head high enough to see either the killers or their car, but he is alert enough to deduce from the sound of their voices that one of the killers is white, the other black.

The next morning, Nick finally awakens and stumbles down to the riverbank where he finds the body of the victim, a young black man. He makes an anonymous call to the cops, reporting the killing, and then beats feet.

The cops are convinced that it's a drug deal gone wrong or perhaps a gang killing and they don't appear to be putting a lot of effort into solving the case. But Nick knows that it's highly unlikely that a black man and a white man would be cooperating in either scenario. The killing has sobered him, at least temporarily, and he decides to investigate the crime himself.

Stephanos finds it significant that the victim's best friend is now missing and he teams up with a straight-arrow newbie P.I. named Jack LaDuke who has been hired by the missing boy's mother to find him. Together, Nick and LaDuke will be drawn into a seamy world of drugs, gay porn, violent crime and lots of other unpleasant activities as they attempt to find the missing boy and solve the killing.

As is usual in a novel by George Pelecanos, the major force in the book is the setting and atmosphere that he creates. The seedy underside of Washington, D.C., where virtually all of his books are set, comes alive and is vividly rendered. You can feel the poverty and despair, smell the cigarette smoke, and practically taste the liquor.

As always in a Pelecanos book, music plays a key role, and hardly a page goes by that does not find Stefanos listening to one musical group or another, a great many of whom no one else has ever heard of, and at times it can seem like Pelecanos is simply showing off in this regard, effectively pointing out to the reader that he is cooler and way more hip than the reader could possibly ever be.

But this is a small complaint about a very good book from a writer early in his career who would only grow more talented and produce even better books in the years to come. It should appeal to any reader of crime fiction who likes his or her action down and dirty and who understands that in real life, sometimes there are no happy endings.

Football & Murder - The Things That Made America Great

The Prophet
Michael Koryta
Little, Brown & Co.

reviewed by Kemper
4 out of 5 future NFL stars

This story is kinda like if Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights and Nick Stefanos from the crime novels by George Pellecanos were brothers who had been pulled apart by a family tragedy and now faced a killer.

Actually, I’m just being glib and that’s not doing justice to this book. Let’s start over:

In 1989, Adam Austin was a high school football star and his younger brother Kent looked to follow in his footsteps. As their team was in the middle of a season that would culminate in a state championship, Adam blew off giving their sister Marie a ride home one night, and that moment of teenage irresponsibility had horrible consequences when Marie was abducted and murdered.

Over 20 years pass. Adam now works as a bail-bondsmen with a private detective’s license, and Kent became the football coach of their old high school team. While Adam is a hard-drinker who spends his nights hunting down criminals who miss their court dates, Kent is a sober church going family man and community leader. Adam wallows in his guilt over Marie’s death by living in their childhood home and preserving her room exactly as it was when she died, but Kent tries to avoid any mention of his late sister. The two brothers have barely spoken in years after Adam became enraged at Kent for visiting their sister’s killer in prison and praying for the man.

As Kent prepares his undefeated football team for the play-offs, a young woman visits Adam with a request that he track down her father who was just released from prison. Adam makes a quick hundred bucks without missing his next beer, but this act results in a brutal murder that again links the two brothers in tragedy and rocks their small Ohio town.

I thought this one would be a straight up thriller, and while it has a few of those elements, it’s really more like Lehane’s Mystic River in that it’s about the impact to a family and a community caused by a crime, and all the ways that people try to make their peace with that. It’s the different lives and attitudes of the two brothers that really make this book hum as it examines how they dealt with their grief and loss, and how they both took it to extremes that are sadly understandable.

Adam thinks that Kent committed an unforgivable offense to Marie’s memory by offering forgiveness to her killer without understanding that it was how Kent was able to get some closure. Kent believes that Adam’s refusal to move on is just a stubborn decision on his part, but he can’t see that Adam has never found a way to forgive himself for her death.

Koryta does an excellent job of making both of these men sympathetic. Instead of the caricature of a screaming football coach who only cares about winning, Kent is a thoughtful and kind man who truly believes that he’s helping teenagers become upstanding adults, and he holds himself to extremely high standards. Adam seems like a cynical and lazy drunk at the beginning, but he’s also a determined man who refuses to let anything stand in the way of dealing with what he feels responsible for.

And oddly enough, this is also a book about sports. Kent sometimes feels silly at worrying about football games in the midst of everything going on, but he also knows that carrying on is the only way to get through something terrible. He struggles to strike a balance between letting his players know what’s really important versus what a championship would do for their struggling small town. Football is one thing that Adam and Kent can still talk about, and as Adam notes, sometimes it makes you feel better to just to hit the shit out of somebody.