On the plane back from a Thanksgiving visit to the in-laws in San Jose, I read a Hard Case Crime novel, Peter Pavia’s Dutch Uncle (2005), which got me thinking about George Pelecanos. Not that Pavia writes much like Pelecanos; his much more obvious (and clearly credited) forebear is Elmore “Dutch” Leonard. Rather, my thoughts ran in that direction because over the years Pelecanos has garnered tremendous critical praise, his novels able to escape the crime/mystery ghetto and be reviewed more or less as straight-up novels—and Pavia, at least on the evidence of Dutch Uncle, is better.
Now, I’ve only read four of Pelecanos’s novels, the ones featuring private eye Derek Strange, which I understand are not as highly regarded as his earlier quartet featuring Nick Stefano, Dimitri Karras, and Marcus Clay (let alone his reportedly stellar work on The Wire). And I’ve enjoyed all four: together they present an wide-ranging and detailed picture of contemporary Washington, D.C., legal and illegal, and unshadowed by the Capitol or the White House and what happens there. In Strange, Pelecanos has created an interesting central character who grows with each story, and he’s surrounded him with a supporting cast that looks like it’ll prove worth his continued attention. He’s aiming high, trying to both relate a good crime story and tell us something about the way our cities work now, especially at the margins.
Pelecanos clearly works very hard to portray different perspectives, from that of a redneck Virginia gun dealer to the drug peddler who kills with what the rednecks sells him. More than any other contemporary author I can think of, he refuses to be limited by racial boundaries, feeling as entitled to present the perspective of a black teenager as of the Greek restaurateur who is much closer to his own background. It’s admirable. But somewhere along the line, the seams start showing. Reading Pelecanos, at times I can feel the effort, can guess at all that’s involved in trying to portray life from these varied points of view—I can see what ought to be transparent. Part of that comes from Pelecanos’s attempts to put readers deep into the thought processes of secondary characters through a third-person omniscient narration so close as to be essentially first-person—near stream-of-consciousness at times—which tends to by its very nature draw attention to itself. I find that at those points I’m thinking about Pelecanos’s word choices and thought processes rather than sinking willingly into the characters themselves. Those very efforts at authenticity backfire; they remind me that the characters are ultimately under Pelecanos’s thumb, subject to his will and the needs of his story.
None of this is intended to denigrate George Pelecanos: he’s writing good books, and ambitious books, which I’ll keep reading and for which it woulf be unfair to punish him. Instead, it’s an attempt to tell you how good I think Peter Pavia’s Dutch Uncle is. Whereas Pelecanos has, in my view, failed to fully bring his secondary characters to life; Pavia populates his novel with more than a dozen fully realized characters, without striking a wrong note. To make the comparison with Pelecanos fair, I should point out that we only see from the perspective of three characters, all white men, in Dutch Uncle—but the overall impression of a group of real people living their lives and happening to intersect is so strong that the perspective doesn’t seem the slightest bit limited.
The novel tells the story of Harry Healy, a small-time hood who gets in over his head and is suspected of murdering a drug dealer. The plot is pretty skeletal, but like most good crime novels, Dutch Uncle has a strong sense of place, depicting all the squalor of mid-90s Miami, along with other unsavory Florida locales, and it’s got a full cast, including worn-down cops, vapid models, a hillbilly drug dealer, a rust-fund cokehead, bar bouncers, and a variety of good people in bad situations. What separates it from a lot of novels—not just crime novels—is that the characters, even the most minor, seem completely alive and independent: they’re ends in themselves rather than means, who they are rather than what they are—or what Pavia needs them to be and do. Oh, they further the plot (after all, in a crime novel, how could they not?), and they advance Pavia’s themes, but those considerations always take a back seat to the characters’ own existences as fully imagined people.
Pavia has somehow, for one novel at least, found his way to the right side of that near-mystical line that separates the ordinary fictional characters, created out of whole cloth from masses of detail, from those who, like Tolstoy’s characters, surmount their details and seem alive, rounded, and breathing. Lord knows, I’m not saying Pavia’s as good as Tolstoy—he doesn't, for one thing, project quite the same god-like sympathy for everyone that Tolstoy did in his novels—but his characters cohere in the same manner, their histories, thoughts, and actions forming a seemingly organic whole, from the hapless young Alex Fernandez, a washed-up college baseball star now caught up with criminals, to the quietly drunk house painter whose work ethic Healy learns to appreciate.
I’d be a far better critic if I could identify that animating spark, the difference between this detail and that—between Pavia’s gay Miami playboy drug dealer’s too-short silk bathrobe that reveals his sagging balls and Pelecanos’s teenaged drug dealer’s unspoken love of his pit bull—but in the absence of science, I’m forced to go with feel, and Pavia’s characters feel right. And their actions and choices, because somehow Pavia makes them seem to be wholly their own—surprising at times, but always believable—carry a real weight, a sense of long-term consequence that lends a palpable tension to every moment of decision. That in itself is a measure of Pavia’s achievement: there does seem to be a long term that those actions could screw up; these characters have an existence after the book is closed.
From what I can tell, Dutch Uncle is Pavia’s debut novel. It’s the best I’ve read from Hard Case Crime yet, and I can’t wait for his next.