Pelecanos, George P. The Night Gardener.

NY: Little, Brown, 2006.

I’ve read a number of the entries in this author’s several highly regarded series of crime novels, all set in Washington, D.C., but this one is a standalone, and it may be his best book yet. Gus Ramone, who is (I think) part-Hispanic and part-Italian, is a sergeant in homicide who loves his job, even while he hates the necessity for it. His wife is a black ex-cop, and that and their two mixed-race kids provide much of the background for Pelecanos’s ongoing commentary about the reality of race relations in the District.

Twenty years ago, when Gus was a young patrolman, he was present at the scene of one of a series of murders of teenagers, all the bodies being found in neighborhood community gardens. The lead investigator back then was Sgt. T. C. Cook, almost a legend on the homicide squad, but he retired soon after without being able to solve the case, and he’s never forgotten it. Another young cop back then was Dan “Doc” Holiday, a very different type of personality from Gus. Doc eventually screwed up and Gus, who was then serving in IAD, was instrumental in getting him sacked from the department. (Well, he resigned before he could be fired.) Now Holiday is running a two-limo driving service to pay the bills and hates every minute of it.

And now another young black man has been found dead in a garden, and while there are differences from the killings two decades before, there are also enough similarities to get everyone’s attention. By pure happenstance, it was Holliday who stumbled on the new body and he gets to thinking that this might be a way to prove something to his ex-colleagues. He goes to visit Cook, now widowed and dealing with the effects of a stroke, but who also takes up the challenge. Cook thinks he knows who the culprit was back then, and that guy has just been released from prison, so maybe he’s resuming his old program of killing kids.

Meanwhile, another plot is gradually taking shape, involving a young guy who wants to make a big name for himself on the street, and his older cousin who is out on probation and only wants to put in a full day on his construction job and stay clean. But he promised his aunt he’d look after his younger relative, so he finds himself being pulled into a situation he knows is going to get both of them killed.

Pelecanos has a deep understanding of real life in the nation’s capital — not the legislators and government employees but the ordinary white-collar and blue-collar citizens and the struggle by most of them just to get through each day. There are cops, like Gus and his partner (a single mother of four sons), who work hard at their jobs — and it generally is just a job to them, not some sort of “mission” — and there are cops who are just putting in the years toward retirement and trying to collect as much overtime as possible. There are kids with dreams of college or stardom in sports, and there are other kids trying to move up in the drug gangs. And the author is as interested in the meaning of “family” in all these cases as he is in telling the story of the two homicide investigations, twenty years ago and in the present day.

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