Sunday, October 30, 2016

Review: The Cut

The Cut The Cut by George Pelecanos
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The good news here is that Pelecanos can write. He’s a pro as I know from this, another novel or two, and his rock-solid reputation. He’s one of the top-tier noir guys going. The signs of that come early here: he’s got the Elmore Leonard capacity for leaving out the parts people want to skip, and he’s got a knack for establishing compelling aspects of character in a few slick sentences.

The bad news is that this feels, from the start, like a bid for a successful series. Spero Lucas is a striking character. He’s proud of the Greek heritage he took from his adoptive family, but he’s also bound by the fact of his dark skin. He’s a full brother to Leo, but they’re on opposite sides of the business of bettering their community; Leo’s an idealistic teacher and Spero is a private investigator who’s willing to work with questionable characters. Spero’s young, handsome and dealing with his demons from the Iraq war. And there’s the unresolved business of his now widowed mother.

My point isn’t that all that’s bad – in fact, the premise of an Iraq vet P.I. is timely and promising – but that it has the feel of a bigger plan. It’s not just Spero’s relationship with his mother that’s unresolved; everything is. We get invited into his busy and sprawling life, and we don’t really get shown the exit. Yeah, the particular crime gets resolved, but we’re left ‘teased’ with the idea that there’s more to come in Spero’s story.

That’s not necessarily Pelecanos’s fault; it’s his job after all to get a series rolling. I just can’t help feeling that, for all the excellent series we’ve seen in noir, that there’s something un-noir, un-hardboiled to them. I don’t believe in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because I think rock is always implicitly anti-institutional; so an institution celebrating that is either self-consciously ironic or just plain wrong. In the same way, I think noir is about a glimpse into a dark corner of a dark scene. Repeated glimpses mean, eventually, fuller illumination. They mean a kind of well-lit noir – and that sounds like an oxymoron to me.

Anyway, I did enjoy this – and I have enjoyed some series, most of all Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins stories – but I can’t help feeling there’s better Pelecanos elsewhere. What we get of Spero’s Iraq history is compelling, and I like the Greek flavor, too. There’s a good mystery with a clever enough twist, but there’s also a gratuitous change of heart by one of the antagonists. That is, there’s a softness in the heart of what otherwise feels hard.

My favorite part here is undoubtedly the beginning, when Pelecanos writes with a crisp enthusiasm in his new detective’s world. Once he settles into the demands of widening that world, once he telegraphs that we’re in for a whole raft of sequels, I start to think maybe this is less a matter of excellence and more a matter of competence.

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