4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I've lived in DC for 20 years and Pelecanos is only the second author I've come across who writes about the DC that I know and recognize (the other is Edward Jones, check out his story collection “Lost in the City” if you can find it). The third book in the Derek Strange series picks up immediately where Hell To Pay left off. In the wake of drug lord Granville Oliver's arrest (as detailed in Hell To Pay), two street gangs are attempting to fill the void his departure has left on the drug market. Meanwhile, Strange is working for Oliver's defense team, gathering background information on various witnesses. This surprising assignment mainly involves the search for one woman, and it soon becomes apparent that someone doesn't want Strange to find her.
Here, Pelecanos weaves a critique of the city's treatment at the hands of Congress into the story. Despite the city's 1981 repeal of the death penalty, and a 1992 citywide referendum that rejected the death penalty by a 2-1 margin, federal prosecutors have sought the death penalty in high-profile D.C. cases (such as the "Starbucks murders") with support from Congress. Strange tells himself he's working for the ex-drug lord as a matter of anti-death penalty conscience, but as in all of Pelecanos' books, there's more to it than that (as readers of Hell To Pay will know). The one misstep in his treatment of this is the appearance of a "big brother" conspiracy element that threatens to push the story into the "24/X-Files" zone. Fortunately, this never becomes too overt, and the story is allowed to move at its own pace.
Even more than in the first two books, Strange and his fiery white partner, Terry Quinn find themselves tilting at windmills in a crusade to make just a tiny difference to their community. It's been ten years since the "Murder Capital" days of the early '90s, but little change is evident in the worst parts of the city as the city regains the dubious title. If Right As Rain was about racism, and the last one about hopelessness, this one is about how guns and hopelessness form a lethal brew that threaten entire communities. Pelecanos' other target in this book is guns, more specifically, the ease by which they can be bought in Maryland and Virginia and then transferred into DC. He's clearly talked to ATF people to get the lowdown on waiting periods, and how straw purchases work. It's remarkably simple, and there's no remedy in sight. Some readers may find Pelecanos to have too much of a personal agenda woven into the plot, but he's walked the streets of Southeast DC and seen what goes down and why.
This is easily the darkest and most depressing of the three Strange books to date, gushing humanity, anger, and frustration. Strange and his creator clearly feel that the only way to turn things around is one kid at a time (Pelecanos has adopted several children), and that's the one good message to take from the book. As always, the cast of characters is large and distinctive, although Terry becomes more of an enigma filled with demons that never quite make enough sense for the reader. For fans of Pelecanos' earlier work, Nick Stefanos makes a cameo appearance here and there's a hint that he'll have a larger role in the next novel. All in all, another solid entry in Pelecanos' D.C. sagas.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
"The chains binding Granville Oliver's wrists scraped the scarred surface of the table before him. Manacles also bound his ankles."
Private investigator Derek Strange is visiting a client in prison in the opening scene of this novel. He previously helped to put Granville Oliver there. He hates what his client represents and the crimes he has committed. Oliver was previously a successful gangster, and Strange loathes the drugs and guns culture that threatens to destroy the community they both come from, the black community of the US capital, Washington DC. Yet, for several reasons, some depicted throughout the narrative, and one he keeps secret, he has agreed to work gathering evidence for Oliver's defence lawyers. His client faces the death penalty if found guilty by a "death-qualified" jury who have been selected specifically for not opposing execution.
Back at the office, he and business partner Terry Quinn agree to take on another case, and look for a young woman who has disappeared. Quinn soon gets a result, but he feels that he has compromised his principles and done something wrong, and a piece of tragic news confirms his worst fears.
The rest of the novel is taken up with the development of these two plot strands and a third storyline of a war between two rival gangs for control over the drug market in their area, a conflict which has connections to the PI duo's work that they have yet to learn about. There are a lot of scenes showing various other characters whose actions will affect the drama being played out - gun dealers, drug dealers, gangsters, and those linked to them. Many of the events in the novel seem to have an awful inevitability to them.
This is the third book about this PI duo, both ex-cops. This is the third book about this PI duo, both ex-cops. I think it could be enjoyed independently of the first two, Right as Rain and Hell to Pay, and I think it is the best in the series, but it is worth reading the earlier books to find out about how they came to work together. There are also a number of other recurring characters.
Strange is a black man in his 50s, who left the police some time ago by choice to set up a successful PI business. He met Quinn while investigating a case which involved this white man in his early 30s, and Quinn now divides his time between working with Strange in the PI business and another part time job in a suburban secondhand bookshop.
I would recommend Pelecanos' work for its strong, memorable writing and its vivid portrayal of a city and characters in crisis. There are no simple resolutions to the social problems and crime that are the other side of the US capital, nor to the dilemmas which concern his characters, including Strange and Quinn. I love this kind of hardboiled, gritty crime fiction, very different from the neat wrap-ups of the traditional whodunit. For me, only crime writing seems to explore the social and political problems in such a compelling way.
These books are very violent, but in this series and in Soul Circus in particular, George Pelecanos deals with guns rather differently from many hardboiled crime writers. Derek Strange refuses to use one even though he frequently confronts those who are. There is a very clear message from the story - picking up a gun is no way to confront the problems of the city and of society. Further, the worst villains of the story are those who live out in the suburbs supplying the guns that kill those in the "Section 8s" (low income housing in the city). I found the way he did this a totally convincing and absorbing read. However, if you don't like books which explore social and political issues, you might not enjoy this one. There is a lot of comment here, almost a sustained rant, but it worked for me.
The most negative pointabout this novel is its lack of really interesting female characters. The best ones to have featured in this series are Janine, Strange's secretary and for some years his girlfriend, and now his wife, and Quinn's girlfriend Tracey, whom he met on a previous case. Pelecanos still tells us they are strong women, but instead of showing evidence of that as he did to some extent at least in the previous books, he relegates them to roles of just supporting their men. The other women in Soul Circus are victims of the male criminal culture portrayed in the novel, and not that fully drawn.
On the other hand, I did enjoy the reappearance of the main protagonist from Pelecanos' first 3 books, Greek-American PI Nick Stefanos, a few years older and wiser.
To conclude, this is a powerful and memorable novel by one of my favourite crime writers. I would recommend it very highly, but not to everyone.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 19 March 2003
Set in the deprived areas of Washington DC avoided by tourists and politicians alike, Soul Circus is George P Pelecanos 11th novel, and the third to feature Private Investigator Derek Strange and his partner Terry Quinn.
Strange is trying to save former drug overlord Granville Oliver from the death penalty, while rival gang factions battle to fill the gap in the market left by Oliver’s arrest. But someone in federal law enforcement is desperate to stop Strange from finding evidence, and enlists the help of the gangs to stop him.
Meanwhile Strange and Quinn locate a young woman in what appears to be a routine disappearance case. When the woman is later found murdered in a local park, and Strange’s family and livelihood are threatened, their guilt forces them to reassess the consequences of their actions.
In typical Pelecanos style, the action is peppered with references to popular culture, especially music. Events take place to a backdrop of Missy Elliott, Ennio Morricone and Marvin Gaye.
Throughout the book, Pelecanos explores the harsh realities of life on the streets, and the obstacles faced by honest citizens in their day-to-day existence. As the characters develop, we see them struggle to find redemption by “making a difference” in the lives of those around them.
Unjudgmental about his flawed characters, Pelecanos reserves his condemnation for the social policies which leave young men with no hope to grow up too fast, mere miles from the wealth of the country’s decision-makers on Capitol Hill.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 23 February 2010
Overall I found the "Strange Trilogy" an anti-climax with the concluding part "Soul Circus" lacking in humour or passion or indeed action until the final few chapters. The scene had been set in "Hell to Pay" for Strange to defend a convicted murderer out of a sense of responsibility - however this is kept very much away from centre stage as a number of sub-plots are set up (most of which fizzle out!).You start to wonder what the story is about. Also Strange's partner, Terry Quinn is only mentioned fleetingly in the first half of this book which meanders aimlessly for over a hundred pages.
Pelecanos does not even imbue any depth in his writing with far too much description and not enough dialogue. We are left to work out much of Strange's character by taking note of his musical taste which is referred to ad nauseum. His main aim seems to be to preach about gun violence and working class deprivation. As most people in this side of the world at least would harbour the same opinion it smacks of condescension that these are almost the only themes running through the novel.
Action does improve in the second part of the book but the "baddies" are removed (or punished) rather too conveniently and the actual ending -other than one surprise- is much tamer than the violence that preceded it. Overall I find it hard to be enthusiastic about this author and certainly am in no hurry to purchase any more of his work !
on 11 October 2013
George Pelicanos is a leading screen writer for the hugely successful HBO series The Wire. Multi layered stories of Baltimore real life which brought to prominence for UK audiences, Idris Elba. In his crime books GP writes about Washington DC in the same way Dennis Lehane and Robert B Parker write of Boston, Robert Crais of LA etc. He is considered, therefore, to be essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary US crime writing. I had not read GP before and I had not seen The Wire. I came to Soul Circus after heavy recommendations from friends. It was disappointing and frustrating.
In this book GP tries to bring alive the Washington DC gang / drug milieu. The main character is Derek STRANGE, a retired DC cop now a PI. His partner is Terry QUINN. A gang leader is in prison waiting trial accused of the murder of his uncle who was, apparently, going to tell all to the Feds. STRANGE and QUINN are retained to uncover prejudicial material about another prison inmate who is going to give evidence against the gang leader. That is the basic premis and sets up STRANGE's moral conflict. He is a family man and still really a cop who despises the young, fearless and violent drug gangs. Yet he is working to help the gang leader in prison. From that point the author gradually lost me and my initial investment in the landscape, the character and the developing dramas. The author brings in so many characters and sub plot-lines that at the half way point I was unable to cohere the story into a single narrative drive. The Wikipedia summary sets out in detail the competing characters and plot-lines.
I was unable to see the relevance or importance of many incidents, characters and locations. This may be a function of the fact that I began to draw away from GP's style of writing. I was never quite clear what drug was being traded by the warring gangs. The novel was written in 2003 - the drugs were variously referred to as Chronic, Hydro and Blow which I think can be amphet, marijuana or a combination of both. GP uses great tranches of DC drug gang argot to drive the story forward. This did not help me to remain on board, I was reminded of Irvine Welch's sometimes impenetrable New Scottish Writing. A particular annoying device was to describe events in the argot as if it was a character thinking aloud, when it was not. Washington DC did not come alive. The murder capital of the world? Streets and areas are named, buildings are described but I found no flavour of the sort Lehane and Crais provide.
There were so many actors there was very little time or space for character development. This lead to what I saw as moral ambivalence on the part of the author. Perhaps this was intended but, as I say, there was so little character development that I was unable to invest in either side, good or bad, police or gangs, criminals or victims. Again the author may have intended a challenge to the reader to move beyond a crime thriller and consider the underlying socio ecomomic values operating in an urban black drug culture. In the end I felt distanced from the players and the landscape.
GP is very popular and acknowledged as a leader in contemp US crime fiction. But there are so many top writers in this field. It did not hold me.
Other than a single, somewhat intimidating mistaken route through Baltimore many years ago, I have no experience of the world described by George Pelecanos. But the run-down housing of the Washington DC ghettoes, the fatherless families, the drug dealers, the immature gang culture, the gun problem which form the multiple themes of Soul Circus, these all have a ring of gritty authenticity.
Derek Strange, the central character, is a former policeman turned private investigator. There are plenty of those in popular American fiction but Strange is hardly stereotypical. His conscience runs deep and so justifies the author's overt horror of America's ambivalent attitude to guns. Nothing wrong with a violent story that displays its moral standpoint so plainly.
The confusion other reviewers have found in keeping in touch with the plot line and with some characters who are less clearly defined than others is understandable. But the effort is worth making. This is a powerful account of an unsavoury world that reads as though written from the inside.
on 7 April 2003
After the brilliance of its two fore-runners (Right As Rain, Hell o Pay), one would expect a little more from Soul Circus. Instead of following up the intrigue set up between Derek Strange and Granville Oliver's father at the end of Hell To Pay, Pelecanos simply creates a new lazy and preachy plot-line in which Strange attempts to save Oliver from execution. Out of guilt for killing his father? Sadly, no, it's simply a principle thing thus adding nothing to the Strange character. His partner Terry Quinn is also poorly served by Pelecanos, barely rising above the Steve-Earle-listening blue-collar strong-arm he was reduced to in Hell To Pay. The dialogue which is usually dynamite seems somewhat leaden and a little obvious at times. Obvious too is the moral of the tale which is hammered home with untypical bluntness. Guns are bad? Come on, Pelecanos, don't treat your fans like this.
Inside the dust cover reveals that Pelecanos is already writing his next book. Perhaps he should spend a little longer on that one to avoid all our disappointment again.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 15 April 2008
Strange is a PI working the seedier streets of Washington. With his background as a cop he is willing to go into the areas that other investigators would choose to avoid. Over the years he has built up a reputation as a decent man, not to be messed with. Therefore, when a career criminal hires him to find a witness to aid in his defence, Strange chooses to help. With his new partner in tow Strange must once again enter the world of street gangs to find a girl scared for her life. Can they get the girl and her son out before the street gangs find out about what she knows?
I tried my hardest to enjoy `Soul Circus', but by the end I just could not. Pelacanos writes a very realistic feeling book with the gang culture feeling well researched. However, he overcomplicates the book by having multiple storylines and multiple character sets. By half way I was unable to know who was who and was also confused as to what case Strange and co. were investigating at that moment. This only gets worse towards the end when characters are dealt with and you are left wondering why. To top it all, the conclusion was particularly poor as by this time I had absolutely no idea what was going on. The blame must fall to Pelecanos who chose over complication when simplicity would have sufficed.
on 11 October 2010
I have now read all of G Pelecanos output; and I never tired of it for a minute.
The characterisation is detailed and impressive. The plot moves in many directions and keeps the reader interested. The numbers of characters is sometimes a bit daunting (usually up to 40/50) but keeps you on your toes.
on 17 November 2013
What a writer. The quality of this mans books never drops. Characters that leap off the page, wonderful dialogue and a story that builds slowly but rivetingly to a dramatic finale. The one trouble is that after reading a Pelecanos book anything else pales in comparison.