George Pelecanos,
Hard Revolution
(Little, Brown & Co., 2004;
Warner, 2005)

George Pelecanos writes well-crafted stories with realistic settings and people. He has an extraordinary ability to empathize with his characters, whether caring grandmothers or cold killers. That talent, or curse, allows him to describe the roots of class conflict better than just about anyone else you can read.

Hard Revolution is one of his best novels. It is set, as are his other books, in Washington, D.C. The main character is Derek Strange who has appeared as a private investigator in earlier novels. Hard Revolution tells of his life as a boy in the 1950s and then as a black policeman in the '60s at the time of Martin Luther King's assassination and the resulting D.C. riots.

Using multiple storylines, Pelecanos shows how the upbringing and behavior of Strange and his friends as boys are predictors of how they will turn out as young men. Strange's father is conscientious about his job in a diner and tells his son by word and deed how a man is supposed to act. As an adult, Derek takes a responsible path. He becomes a policeman because he's always admired cops and wants to help make his neighborhood a safer, better place. But it's a tough neighborhood and other kids have grown up without discipline and guidance. Even Derek's brother struggles. Boyhood friends who lacked role models such as Derek's father wind up on the opposite side of the law. They see policemen as enemies and Derek as a traitor.

The riots bring this conflict into sharp focus. King's assassination is a tipping point. Daily evidence of class and racial prejudice has built a volcano of frustration and anger that erupts in an unreasoning rage. By often subtle, and sometimes brutal, examples Pelecanos shows how people can come to find the destruction of their own neighborhood a cathartic release.

Hard Revolution doesn't deal in surface characterizations. Some villains have just been unlucky, others have inbred meanness. Heroes may have bad habits and make mistakes in their personal lives. It all feels real. And sometimes it feels good too as Derek and his father do their best to be positive influences on those around them, even when doing the right thing is inconvenient or hard. They believe that teaching youngsters to play football or giving them a few dollars for jobs you might have done yourself will teach them something about teamwork and about being self-sufficient.

Pelecanos has a quirk or two including strong feelings about popular music. Strange is a successful record store owner in the first novel in which he appears. His creator may be a frustrated disc jockey given what he knows about the clubs and radio stations of the town that fascinates him. His preferences seem to be soul and jazz. We always know what's playing on the car radio as characters drive to a confrontation. But it all adds to the verisimilitude and atmosphere.

If you haven't read Pelecanos, this is a good place to start. After reading it, you'll be looking for his previous novels and maybe even watching The Wire, the HBO series about Baltimore law enforcement that won him an Emmy nomination. Whether in print or on TV, George Pelecanos gets my highest recommendation.

by Ron Bierman
14 January 2006

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