The Double

By George Pelecanos

Little, Brown. 295 pp. $26

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Reviewed by Deen Kogan


Some novels are like ice cream sundaes, quickly consumed and quickly forgotten. With George Pelecanos, the reader gets steak and potatoes from the first page, with images that remain long after the narrative is finished.

The Double is Pelecanos' 19th novel, second in a series following The Cut, which introduced Spero Lucas, a Marine veteran of Iraq. With Lucas, hero or antihero, Pelecanos explores a truly contemporary protagonist.

The plot of The Double is fairly straightforward. While he works as a legal investigator for defense attorney Tom Petersen, looking for any bit of evidence that might exonerate a client on trial for murder, Lucas moonlights for Grace Kinkaid, whose painting The Double was stolen by a part-time, not so nice boyfriend. The deal: retrieve the painting and find the boyfriend. Lucas' fee is 40 percent of the value, or $80,000. (Compensation from the defense attorney is $10 an hour.) He has no idea of the depth of nastiness to come, when the meaning of the title The Double becomes clear.

Lucas is a complex character. When Petersen looks at him, he sees the man "who had fought in Fallujah, where the fiercest house-to-house combat of the war, perhaps any war, had occurred. A man who had left his youth in the Middle East and come back looking for a replication of what he had experienced there every day: a sense of purpose and heightened sensation. Petersen sensed that there were night-black shadows beneath the surface of his investigator's cool facade."

Lucas has no remorse over killing and he has brought that attitude home with him. His mantra: You kill us, we kill you. What he requires from life is "sex, work, money, and a comfortable bed. Everything he dreamed of when he was overseas."

Women see another Spero, a very attractive man, and along with his current cases where "he gets out there and talks to people," he is deeply involved with a married woman named Charlotte, knowing there is no future there. He drives a Jeep Cherokee, owns a Greg LeMond bike and a kayak, drinks beer, smokes a little weed, and maintains relationships and friendships with other ex-military. He makes regular visits to the Walter Reed Medical Center, which was in Washington for years but is now in Bethesda, Md., bringing books from his apartment for the wounded soldiers and Marines - biography, history, crime novels, any good story, for "like most people the recovering veterans enjoyed a good story told with clean, efficient writing, a plot involving a problem to be solved or surmounted, and everyday characters the reader could relate to."

Lucas comes from a passionate, loving Greek family, one of three adopted boys and a less-engaged natural daughter. He is particularly close to his brother Leo, a high school teacher with a Brooks Bros. wardrobe. Spero favors T-shirts and jeans. His father, Van, is dead; his mother, Eleni, is revered and respected. On one occasion, when she telephones and asks where he was, Spero makes up a story because he doesn't want to tell her about the woman he was with. When the call ends, "he winced, thinking, On top of everything else, I lied to Mom."

Pelecanos is a prolific writer, and in addition to novels, his work includes nonfiction, short stories, numerous articles, and the award-winning television series The Wire, which he also produced. Each shares his signature themes: examination of the moral ambiguity in society today; frequent references to music and films; definitive descriptions of Washington and its environments (and perhaps a twinge of regret at the changes to the city - he's a D.C. kid, born and bred). Above all, with pared-down prose, the characters are so sharply drawn they absolutely do exist.

In his acknowledgments, Pelecanos says, "This novel references and honors the work of John D. MacDonald, Charles Willeford, and Don Carpenter. Those authors, and many others, were influential in the creation of Spero Lucas and The Double."

Pelecanos is a worthy addition to this fraternity of writers and has come a long way from driving himself to Philadelphia in 1992 for a Mid-Atlantic Mystery Conference with a box of copies of A Firing Offense, his first novel, in the trunk.

Without a doubt, more Spero Lucas is certain to come. His story isn't finished yet.

Deen Kogan is director of the Society Hill Playhouse. She also produces literary conferences. The next, NoirCon IV, is set for November.