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Onyx reviews: The Cut by George Pelecanos

Spero Lucas, the protagonist of The Cut, is a modern version of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. He lives in D.C. instead of Florida, and in a house not on a houseboat, but his occupational philosophy is similar. When someone takes something from someone else, he offers to get it back, keeping a 40% cut (hence the book's title) for himself. That's a bargain—McGee used to keep half. 

Spero's background is fascinating. Though his name sounds like he's another of Pelecanos's Greek characters, he isn't. He was adopted by a Greek couple, who assigned him a Greek name. The couple had four children, three adopted, including Leo, who is black—though that fact doesn't become apparent for quite a while. Their daughter is distant and uncommunicative, and their first adopted son caused them no end of heartbreak, but Leo and Spero turned out to be nearly ideal children.

Spero is a former Marine who spent time in Fallujah. When he's not on a personal mission, he does freelance detective work for a D.C. lawyer. He obsessively documents crime scenes or places of interest through sketches in his notebook and photos on his iPhone. This information often turns out be valuable to his clients in unexpected ways.

He knows the streets of Washington, D.C. and can traverse them with ease either in his car or on his bike. His experience in Iraq has made him handy with a gun and impatient with stupidity. He missed out on college, but he's smart and finding his own way in the world. He's physically fit, takes his kayak out frequently, and has the ability to charm women without significant effort. Like most of Pelecanos's characters, he is a devotee of music and food. He can hold his own in a conversation with film buffs and is an avid reader. He drinks in moderation, smokes a joint every now and then. He is devoted to his brother and mother (his father is dead, a still-open wound). When he requires assistants or specialized skills, he has old war buddies on speed dial who can deliver what he needs. Though he occasionally accepts work from questionable clients, his moral compass still points firmly north. 

His latest gig sound simple enough: he is asked to retrieve a 40-pound box that was stolen from a porch. Turns out, the package contained marijuana and the dealers were using the house—unoccupied during the daytime—as a blind drop. Fed-Ex would deliver it and two men following the shipper's progress via online tracking would scoop it up before the homeowner returned. It's a good enough plan until someone beats them to the punch.

The drugs, worth $130,000, belonged to Anwan Hawkins, in jail awaiting trial on trafficking charges but still running his operation from behind bars. Spero is on Anwan's radar after his attention to detail got Anwan's son released after a car theft bust.

Spero thinks the two men who lost the drugs, Tavon Lynch and Edwin Davis, know more than they're willing to admit. The neighbors aren't of much help, but Spero has been around the block enough to know that someone saw something. One of the potential witnesses is a student in Spero's brother Leo's English class. Soon he's involved in a complex plot involving corrupt police officers and a couple of stone cold killers—one white, one black—who will stop at nothing to protect their operation. The first victims are Tavon and Edwin, but they won't be the last.

Almost every Pelecanos novel ends with a violent confrontation between the hero and the villains, and The Cut is no exception. The bad guys are so willing to go to extreme measures that Spero knows there's no way he can simply walk away from the situation. He knows too much, and the bad guys know he does. Then, once all the blood has been spilled, Spero discovers that he knew far less about the situation than he realized and his "cut," substantial though it seems to be, probably wasn't worth it after all.

As an epilog, the book contains a short story, "Chosen," which fills in the backstory of Spero's parents. It's more of a vignette than a story, but it reveals two charming characters that Pelecanos couldn't fit into the novel. ThoughThe Cut is, perhaps, a more superficial novel than some of Pelecanos's recent works, it is a taut thriller with sufficient stakes to keep readers turning the pages. It's clear that he cares deeply about this family and it probably means that more books featuring Spero are forthcoming, perhaps even a crossover with his other series character, Derek Strange, whose offices Spero encounters while sketching one of his crime scenes.

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