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The Indy Bookshelf

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Soul Circus
by George Pelecanos,
Little Brown, 336 pp., $24.95

"Foreman had spread out several pistols on the felt of his pool table down in the recreation room of the rambler. He had bought a ring once for Ashley, and this was the way the jeweler had presented it to him, on a square of red felt. When Foreman had chosen his pool table at the wholesale store he went to, he had gone for the red, remembering how he had been sold on the ring. This was the way he presented all his goods."

The description above is one of the reasons that I am an absolute diehard Pelecanos fan. The author is describing an illegal gun dealer preparing to show some of his hardware to the local drug dealing crews, but instead of just having the deal go down in some nondescript hotel room or back alley, Pelecanos goes the extra distance. Ulysses Foreman, the dealer, becomes a credible character that understands the importance of making a good impression, and for that reason he becomes totally believable to us, the reader.

Set in Washington, D.C., Pelecanos' world is a far cry from the manicured lawns of the White House and the upper scale row homes of the rich upper class. Pelecanos populates his novels with everyday folk; people that are the backbones of the city, just trying to get by the best way they know how. Many of them are single parents, uneducated, working two jobs. They trudge through the daily existence of a beaten down world, where justice only sees black and white, and where the body count of dead black men is merely a small article on page two of the Metro section. These people try to walk the straight line, dodging the occasional bullet and putting their faith in their church and community.

Among these private citizens is a new breed of free-wheeling, gun-crazy gangsters. Riding around in tricked out Mercedes, the beats bumping out a dark staccato message of doom, these trigger-happy youngsters have only one thing in mind: survival. Every one of them yearns to make it to the top--to be the boss of a crew--packing heat and strapped with a shiny new pistol, while giving orders instead of taking them. And the easiest way to make it to the top is by making your bones.

Even though many of the youths are merely boys, they wear the hardened faces of predators, a product of swimming with the sharks daily. To grow up on these streets and be untouched by the fetid disease is an act of only the purest dedication. For Derek Strange, the owner of Strange Investigations, saving a boy's soul is about the only thing that can matter.

Pelecanos first introduced Strange and his partner--a hotheaded former cop named Terry Quinn--in the novel Right as Rain. Following that was Hell to Pay, another Strange/Quinn adventure. Throughout these novels Pelecanos continued to investigate issues of race, loyalty, revenge and guilt, as well as casting doubt on the issue of equality in both the judicial system and the media.

Present in all of Pelecanos' work is an underlying layer of validity. Throughout all of his novels throbs the truth of the mean streets: People die quickly and senselessly, the grit and poverty of the city envelopes everyone, good people go home and lock their doors while the endless carnival of quick fixes, stolen handguns, and lost souls continues nightly.

While this may sound bleak and foreboding, Pelecanos manages to create two very real, complicated characters in Derek Strange and Terry Quinn. This odd combination--Strange being in his mid-50s and black, Quinn white and in his early 30s--works because both characters actually care about the dangerous world they inhabit. Both men try to make a difference, even if sometimes it is illegal or slightly tainted.

In Soul Circus a local drug kingpin is jailed on murder charges and the officials are trying to make sure that the verdict is death. Strange has his own complicated reasons for getting involved in the case even though the suspect is certainly guilty. However, a web of silence surrounds the case and no matter how hard Strange and Quinn knock, no one wants to answer. That is until they track down one brave woman who refuses to back down, her pride overriding all sense of personal danger. Out on the bad streets a different version of justice is taking place, where morals are useless and revenge is just a trigger finger away.

Pelecanos outdoes himself with this latest work. If you are seeking a new type of hero for today's damaged world, then there's no need to look any further. George Pelecanos is a new voice from the darkness that demands to be heard. The future might not be very clear but it's a helluva ride. EndBlock

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