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Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Pages:384 pages

Author website:

The Night Gardener is the best novel of the year.

This is what crime fiction is all about, human, dark, with glimpses of hope and real joy and sadness. Pelecanos has risen to the top of the class following the classic Derek Strange novels with two grand slams in a row. Drama City and now The Night Gardner. I read this novel and am still astounded, over a month later. Can we end the argument that crime fiction isn’t literature now? Pelecanos has written a masterpiece.

The Night Gardner is dark. It’s dark and it’s lyrical and it’s ugly. And it really doesn’t give you something to hold onto in the end, just the very hint of redemption and hope that the world could be a better place. As a producer and writer for TV’s acclaimed The Wire and author of several other novels, all brilliant in their own right, Pelecanos knows how to set a scene and craft intense dialogue. He does just that in spades in this story of three men who are once again drawn together in order to find a killer. The novel begins in 1985 with the Washington D.C. police department’s unsuccessful attempt at solving a serial killer’s spree involving young children. T.C. Cook, a veteran homicide detective with a 90% success rate is heading it with a vengeance but there are few leads and everyone fears it may go un-solved. Two rookies and reluctant partners, Gus Ramon and Dan “Doc” Holiday are also present at one of the crime scenes. Twenty years later, Gus Ramone has worked his way through the ranks to become a seasoned homicide investigator, Doc Holiday has resigned after it became apparent that he was going to be investigated by internal affairs in what is really a bogus rap. He resigns himself to a life of loneliness, wild women, and alcoholism, and Cook is a long retired old man who suffers from a bad stroke in a state where he can barely read and has to have an aide come to his house once a day. The un-solved 1985 murders still haunt him.

The genius of the novel is in how futile and mundane the lives of these people are. Gus Ramone isn’t a haunted cop who goes after every criminal with a vengeance; the only thing that really matters to him is his family being happy and safe. Holiday’s life is in a tailspin and when he sees a chance at some kind of redemption, he jumps at it without really knowing what to do, until he reunites with Holiday and Cook to solve a murder of a child that mirrors the 1985 serial killings.

But the murder doesn’t dominate the book, Ramone has a family and he needs to support them. Parts of the book are narrated by Holiday, but we mostly follow Ramone and his life. There are several scenes where he has to deal with wrapping up the everyday murders of the inner-city D.C. area and questioning suspects and following up leads. Law & Order, this ain’t, because Ramone is a real person. When he and his colleagues get to the bottom of an ultimately stupid murder, he doesn’t brood over it like a Dick Wolf character, he goes home and seeks solace in shooting hoops with his son, having dinner with his family, and sleeping with his wife.

It isn’t until about half-way through the novel that you learn that while Ramone is a white man, his wife and children are black, and Pelecanos doesn’t ignore this. The racism against them isn’t cartoonish and loud, but subtle and ugly. His son Diego is struggling in his new school, a well-maintained one out in a suburb that celebrates diversity, until it "comes walking down the street on Saturday night." Diego has been singled out by school administrators as a potential problem for no other reason than the color of his skin, which angers Gus and makes him reconsider his decision to get his son away from the crumbling inner-city schools. Pelecanos writes these situations with a real anger as his own children are also black.

In the few scenes that Holiday is in, they crackle with energy of the other world in The Night Gardener. The one with bars and low-rent neighborhoods and people getting by with what they have. You know, the places that aren’t in the tourist brochures for D.C., After getting out of the force, Holiday gets by with his own small limo service and nights drinking in bars and telling stories of his many sexual conquests to other alcoholics that were friends with him when he was also a police officer. One night, after having a drunken one night stand that is anything but sexy, he finds the dead body of a child, shot once in the head. He anonymously calls it in and slowly, he hooks back up with Ramone and Cook. They all have their own reasons why this one is important. For Cook, it is a chance to catch a predator that eluded him, for Ramone, it’s because the victim is a friend of his son Diego, and for Holiday, it’s a chance to find redemption again and to actually feel good about his place in the world without the aid of booze and loose women. For all three men, things go wrong in the course of events, witnesses don’t pan out, and clues are proven worthless and the resolution to the murder is more depressing and real than any that the three men think they would find. This is not a typical novel. The men and women in this world struggle for what they have and work hard to keep it. Bullets hurt. Racism thrives in the most un-likely places. You’re in Pelecanos country and he does not pander or make it easy.

I was afraid of this novel, I really thought Pelecanos was going to sell out and write a serial killer thriller featuring Hard Gruff Men who can take a bullet and drink the same night, with snappy patter and a brilliant and charming killer on the loose. Shame on me, I should have known better.

Unfortunately, this novel isn’t perfect. Parts of the novel follow two gang-bangers on a crime spree and they have absolutely nothing to do with the plot until the end, and that reason is weak. It wouldn’t have taken anything away from the book if they had been written out and would have heightened it had those pages been devoted to one of the three protagonists.

I loved this novel though, and am eager for the next Pelecanos epic because he is only getting better, with hard as nails but real dialogue, a fantastic sense of place, and a real anger and passion that you don’t find as much anymore. He uses music not as a crutch or really to set a scene, but as a way to give a weight and history to the people inhabiting his world, and they all have a unique voice, be it a dixie drawl or an urban growl. In fact, I think my favorite thing was….wait, why are you still reading this? Go out and discover this work of art yourself.


NOT AS GOOD AS: Lawrence Block

BETTER THAN: James Ellroy (I like Ellroy, but his characters never really engage me)