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BOOK REVIEW

In 'Night Gardener,' crime novelist tills familiar landscape of grit, emotion

The Night Gardener, By George Pelecanos, Little, Brown, 372 pp., $24.99

Sometimes, you're reading a book and all you want to do is grab whoever's in the room and say, "Listen to this," and then read a patch of the writing out loud. Just listen to how this guy riffs on street life, you want to say. How he nails boozy guys shooting the breeze in a saloon. How powerfully he catches fear or grief -- or love -- in a sentence or two.

This is what happens when you read George Pelecanos's crime fiction.

His latest novel, his 14th, called "The Night Gardener," is no exception. Set with pungent realism, like most of his fiction, in Washington, D.C., it's nominally about the shooting death of a teenager in a community garden. Asa Johnson's death eerily resembles a series of crimes 20 years back, in 1985, when the corpses of three black youngsters with palindromic names (Eve was one), were discovered in various urban gardens.

That cold case, involving two rookie cops, shadows the book, as do the crisscrossing lives of these ex-colleagues. One, Gus Ramone, has become a respected detective in the Violent Crime Branch of the D.C. police department. The other, Dan Holiday, is a seedy loner still obsessed by police work and bitter over Ramone's role in driving him out of the force.

Deep into the book, Holiday, who runs a one-car livery service, finds himself drawn to the Asa Johnson crime scene. "He sat behind the wheel of the Lincoln," writes Pelecanos, "and finished the rest of his Marlboro. He took a hit, examined the butt in his fingers, and hit it again before flipping it out into the road. He watched the smoke ripple up off the cherry smoldering on the asphalt." In a later scene, where Ramone watches the interrogation of a gun dealer, Pelecanos observes how "Ramone ate his chicken sandwich with the ferocity of an animal, killed his soda, and tossed the can in the trash."

These are small but deceptively telling examples of the novelist's extraordinary skill. (He also writes teleplays, for the HBO series, "The Wire"). It's not just that the taut, shorn prose is so sharply chiseled. These rather casually observed moments are charged with information about character, and, juxtaposed, reveal the evolving relationship of these old adversaries as they circle the central crime and each other.

There isn't a dull page in the book; still, "The Night Gardener" isn't a typical page turner. The narrative spreads out like blood on a carpet, the fingers of the stain lengthening and sometimes merging. The cast of characters multiplies continually as do the overabundant, but often action-packed, subplots.

Finding answers about Asa Johnson's ugly death pushes the book along, and we are made to care about his fate and his devastated family. But solving the mystery isn't Pelecanos's chief interest, however deftly (and satisfyingly) he finally puts the pieces together.

What he really cares about, and what creates the pleasure centers of his book, is emotion: A character's inner tumult, the subtle, mercurial workings of domestic life, the anguish of economically blighted neighborhoods, the pain and fugitive beauty of the racially stressed city Pelecanos so obviously loves.

He writes compellingly, for instance, about Ramone's inter racial marriage, and his son, Diego, a middle-schooler who was acquainted with the ill-fated Asa Johnson. There is a fullness to Ramone and his family that is rare in crime fiction and not always equaled in good literary fiction.

An unpleasant remark by Holiday reminds Ramone that he hadn't thought much about his and his African-American wife's "color difference for a long time, certainly not since the birth of their children. Diego and Alana had erased anything having to do with that. It wasn't that Ramone didn't 'see color,' that most ridiculous of claims that some white people felt they had to make. It was just that he didn't notice it in his kids. Except, of course, to notice how handsome they were in their skin."

Pelecanos is no less sure-footed drawing gritty panoramas of violence in dark alleys than he is writing about tender mercies. Pelecanos is as toughly hard-boiled as the next guy when he needs to be, but his lack of cynicism, in a genre loaded with it, is one of his great virtues along with his impeccable style. Some of the cops in "The Night Gardener" quietly empathize with the perps they take down, not because they're bleeding heart liberals -- they aren't, of course -- but because they come from the same hard streets and understand in their bones how these men were broken too young to be fixed.

This depth of feeling makes the world Pelecanos creates richer and subtler, more believable and far more interesting than the realms of almost any other writer of crime fiction.

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