Review: The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos

13 November 2007

pelecanos1.jpgGeorge Pelecanos writes about the mean streets of Washington DC and the surrounding suburbs. In his books he has chronicled the lives and deaths of the people who live there. Their stories are not about national politics or international intrigue – they are about family and about getting along in a sad and violent place. They are about the choices we make and about the realities that drive those choices.

The Night Gardener begins with a murder scene in 1985, one of a series of bodies found in community vegetable gardens that are killed in the same way. Twenty years later another body is found in another such garden, with scary similarities – is the serial killer back? The story focuses on two policemen – Gus Ramone and Dan Holiday – uniformed patrolmen in 1985 but now gone different ways – one is a detective sergeant, the other left the force under a cloud – as they work through their days and circle closer to a resolution of sorts on the killings and on their relationships. We find out a lot about being a cop, from these men and also from T C Cooke, a homicide detective in 1985, now old, ill, but still trying to get the killer he couldn’t catch in 1985.

The story is also about other men who have to make choices about how mean they want to be and why. Romeo Brock and Conrad Gaskins are cousins, making a living by shaking down kids who sell drugs on street corners, until the chance comes for a major score. But major scores bring major risks – death and meagre glory, or life. Ernest Henderson and Michael Tate are the major risk that stalks Romeo and Conrad, and they also have to make a choice – are they killers or not. In each case we find that not all who go down the mean streets are irredeemably mean.

This is above all a story about families and values and how those values can help the right choices be made, but also about how they will not always guarantee that smart choices will be made. Pelecanos sets all of this out against a backdrop of Washington and the tensions of race and poverty and prejudice that show his love and care for his city. His writing is so solid and sure and so well founded in a knowledge and understanding of the places and people that he writes about, that we are locked in to his world and accept it utterly.

But, and there is a but, a sense of preachiness is not far below the surface; the constant cataloguing of places, clothes, cars and other possessions starts to hint at a formula; and the narrative goes on a bit too long in places.

However, this doesn’t really matter. The story works; the characters are believable; the resolution is not predictable. It’s good.

Details: Publisher: Phoenix (Orion) ISBN: 978-0-7538-2211-1

Other books by George Pelecanos
Nick Stefanos series:
Nick’s Trip (1993), Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go (1995)
D.C. Quartet Series
The Big Blowdown (1996), King Suckerman (1997), The Sweet Forever (1998), Shame the Devil (2000)
Derek Strange and Terry Quinn Series:
Right as Rain (2001), Hell to Pay (2002), Soul Circus (2003), Hard Revolution (2004)
Shoedog (1994), Drama City (2005), The Night Gardener (2006)

Film Review: Breach

18 August 2007

Breach is about betrayal. Based on actual events, it explores why a man would want to betray his country, but also questions why someone would want to live in a world of secrets and lies.

Robert Hanssen, brilliantly portrayed by Chris Cooper, was the FBI agent who sold secrets to the Soviet Union. The film covers the last couple of months before his capture as Eric O’Neill, a young and ambitious FBI employee (Ryan Philippe) who wants to make agent is put next to Hanssen to try and flush him out. The FBI want to catch him making a drop so that no amount of legal dexterity can save the spy.

The story is about how Eric gets close to Hanssen and gains his trust, at some cost to Eric’s relationship with his wife. Juliana, and eventually to his ambitions to be an agent. Hanssen believes that he is smarter than his colleagues, but hasn’t received adequate recognition – he doesn’t have a corner office. You get the impression that he is passing on secrets because he can, and perhaps because of a troubled relationship with his father. There are hints of some strange behaviours – Hanssen films videos of himself making love to his wife and sends them to someone in Germany. In the end, unmasking and capture are inevitable, but perhaps that’s part of the game: he wants to be caught, he wants to be guilty, he wants to be as hard on himself as he is on everyone else, and as his father was on him. Also in the end, he is outsmarted by Eric, or is it because he wants to be?

The acting by Chris Cooper is great, and the main supports, Ryan Philippe and Laura Linney as Eric’s handler, help build the mood of the film. This is not a full-on action special spy thriller, but it is a clever and thoughtful story that does leave you thinking.

The director is Billy Ray, more details of cast and crew can be found at the IMDB page for Breach.