Jennifer Reese
March 19, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Hard Revolution

Current Status
In Season
George Pelecanos
Little, Brown and Company

We gave it a B-

In George Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C., Greeks own the diners, Jews own the grocery stores, Irish cops walk the beat, and real life happens in the street. Women appear primarily at bedtime, politicians never appear at all, and you can tell a lot about a man by the music he favors. Since 1992, Pelecanos has obsessively described this rowdy, multiracial city in 12 hard-boiled, soft-hearted, frequently terrific crime novels. In his early books, Pelecanos wrote mostly about Greeks on both sides of the law. But he has built his last three, exceptionally strong novels around the towering figure of Derek Strange, a middle-aged black private eye who seems to be waging a one-man war against the forces of evil — gun dealers, deadbeat dads — that are tearing apart the town he loves. Now, in Hard Revolution, a heavy-handed prequel set in the 1950s and 1960s, Pelecanos describes Strange’s early family life and short-lived career as a D.C. cop.

The novel begins in 1959, introducing its overabundant cast of characters nine years before the real action begins. The son of hard-working parents, 12-year-old Derek spends his weekends playing stickball with a mixed-race group of kids. One spring day he is brought up short by the sight of a black cop: ”That’s a man right there,” he thinks.

The book revolves around the theme of what it means to be a black man in those crucial decades — something even the women worry about. Derek’s mother, who works as a maid, won’t ask for a raise because then she’d outearn her husband. ”A situation like that, it could kill the lion in your man,” she reflects as she folds her white employer’s underclothes.

Meanwhile, Derek’s brother, Dennis, has started running with lowlifes Alvin Jones and Kenneth Willis, who drive around listening to Connie Francis and drinking cheap sherry. Jones has just committed his first casual murder. ”We all headed to a bed of maggots,” he explains. ”I was just helpin’ the boy along.”

In a separate story line, tenuously linked to the Strange family drama, Pelecanos introduces Buzz Stewart and Shorty Hess, thugs who have everything in common with Jones and Willis except skin color. Buzz and Shorty love the Chantels, hate blacks, and aren’t smart enough to see the contradiction. Their 1950s hobbies include petty theft and running ”coloreds” off the sidewalk.

Fast-forward to 1968: Derek, a rookie cop, has a girlfriend and an apartment. Dennis, a full-time pothead, still lives at home and runs around with Jones and Willis, now hardened criminals hoping to recruit Dennis for their next stickup. Buzz and Shorty have also taken their dangerous games to a new low. One night, they run down — and kill — a young black man with Buzz’s Galaxie while listening to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell on the radio.

The various plotlines converge during the D.C. race riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination — a powerful historic event that dwarfs the tawdry criminal stories Pelecanos has been telling. Fans of Derek Strange may enjoy seeing the world-weary, wised-up PI as an impressionable youth. But newcomers should turn to last year’s ”Soul Circus” or 1996’s ”The Big Blowdown” for a better introduction to what this man can do.

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