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Soul Circus    by George Pelecanos order for
Soul Circus
by George P. Pelecanos
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2003 (2003)
Hardcover, Audio, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is the author's eleventh novel, but my first exposure to PI Derek Strange of Washington, D.C.. It is a series that can be entered midstream, though dense in characters and sub-plots that need to be tracked. Strange is now happily married and enjoying family life with his wife Janine and stepson Lionel, in between forays into investigation. He is loosely partnered by Terry Quinn, whom Derek repeatedly warns against Terry's quickness to anger and affinity for violence. I enjoyed their banter across the racial and generational divide, and appreciated the fact that in this case, for a change, the older and wiser mentor is the black man.

One of the things that they argue about is the fact that Derek is working for the lawyers of Granville Oliver, a violent drug dealer who faces the death penalty. Despite his knowledge of Oliver's misdeeds, the PI feels guilt over the fact that he once killed Granville's father, and also considers that Granville is not getting a fair trial. Strange hopes that the testimony of a young woman, Devra Stokes, might cast doubt on the prosecution's main witness, Philip Wood, Granville's ex-deputy who is now testifying against him. The author says of Devra, 'Time and her environment had not yet bested her.' But the spirited Devra is being watched, and she and her young son are soon under threat. Can Strange and Quinn ensure their safety?

Another sub-plot concerns a routine case that Quinn carries out to track down the missing girlfriend of Mario 'Twigs' Durham, who happens to be the hopelessly incompetent older brother of gang leader Dewayne Durham. Twigs has something he's trying to prove. Quinn tricks the missing woman's son into revealing their address and just as quickly regrets his methods. These plot threads are woven together by the fact that Dewayne's gang is in conflict with that of Horace McKinley, another of Granville's ex-employees who's now working for shadowy forces to assure his conviction. There's a gun with a history, along with colorful gun dealer Ulysses Foreman, and a series of violent confrontations.

Social conscience is a strong force in these noir thrillers. Strange tries to help the kids, since 'the poor ones didn't come out of the gate the same way as those who had money, a set of loving parents, and everything that went along with them.' Gang members muse about being in the ring of some kind of circus, 'One big ring of souls, killin' each other while Mr. Charlie claps.' And in amongst the banter between Derek and Terry is an articulate and passionate argument against the death penalty and the easy availability of guns, 'The same people who are pro-death penalty are the ones want to protect the rights of gun manufacturers to export death into the inner cities.'

Soul Circus is an intelligent thriller, whose hero Derek Strange wants to be 'Making some kind of difference' in a game with only one rule. He has his own ways of achieving this goal, and they make fine reading indeed.

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