HELL TO PAY by George P. Pelecanos

Book Reviews
HELL TO PAY by George P. Pelecanos
Feb 1, 2002, 00:17

HELL TO PAY by George P. Pelecanos; Little, Brown, 2002

Pelecanos has a way of writing that makes you feel like he has in-depth knowledge about everything. From muscle cars and hip hop to Sergio Leone soundtracks and high-end electronics, Pelecanos's eye for detail is extraordinary. When you read a Pelecanos book you feel as if you inhabit the landscapes and eras that he recreates, feel that you learn something each time you pick up one of his novels.

Hell to Pay is the second installment in the latest Pelecanos trilogy, featuring the detective team of Derek Strange and Terry Quinn. Having met in the first novel, Right as Rain, when Strange was asked to investigate a shooting that Quinn committed while on duty as a cop, we find the two men now partnered up and deeply embroiled in each other's lives. That said, the narrative of Hell To Pay is structured in such a way that both Strange and Quinn have their own plots and sub-plots, their own conflicts to resolve by the end of the novel. The structure is a gamble, but Pelecanos pulls it off brilliantly. You put the novel down feeling that both of the protagonists have received equal time and each of their plots has resonance with the other and meld into a greater narrative.

Strange finds himself investigating the murder of one of the boys he coached in football. The boy is shot while with his uncle who has made enemies of some local drug dealers by stiffing them money. Strange investigates this murder and does a background check on a friend's future son-in-law in tandem, and both investigations end up serving as a catalyst for some strong self-examination of his own life.

Quinn partners up with a team of two women investigators who specialize in returning young female runaways to their homes. This line of work usually means dealing with pimps and low-lives, and when they act on information from a young woman on the street to return a girl who doesn't necessarily want to be returned home, things start to go bad. It is in this section of the book that Pelecanos writes one of the most amazing and tactile fight scenes in the history of detective fiction. I literally found myself reaching up to make sure all the pieces of my own face were still intact while I was reading.

Pelecanos has made great strides with this latest trilogy and I think it is some of his strongest work yet. Unlike some of his other series, Strange and Quinn grow in positive ways over the course of these two novels. Pelecanos makes these characters as human and complex as we all are, but we can only strive to be as strong and self-aware.

-Eric Frost

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