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Onyx reviews: Hell to Pay by George P. Pelecanos

Hell to Pay is George P. Pelecanos' follow-up to breakout novel Right as Rain. He returns to the characters established in that novel, Derek Strange and Terry Quinn.

Strange is a black ex-cop, now a private investigator. Quinn is white, a former cop who was the focus of an officer-involved shooting of a black cop. Strange's investigation helped absolve Quinn, but his reputation as the killer of a black policeman clings to him like smoke. Since then, Strange frequently enlists Quinn's help as an investigator, pulling him from his new job working behind the counter in a record store.

These two men are not quite hero material. Strange is having difficulty committing to his relationship with his secretary Janine and continues to frequent massage parlors in Chinatown. He's essentially a good man, though, devoted to the black youth living in the projects, determined to give them every possible chance to make something of themselves by building self-esteem and confidence.

The primary victim is a nine-year-old boy, a rising star on Strange's Pee Wee football team. The boy is the collateral victim of a pay-back shooting at an ice cream stand parking lot. Normally, Strange would have been driven the boy home from football practice himself, but on this fateful day the boy's uncle, who had tried to cheat a gang of drug dealers out of a measly hundred dollars, picked him up.

While Strange pursues the boy's killer, Quinn attempts to save a fourteen-year-old runaway turned prostitute from a pimp and falls for one of the tough women organizing the rescue. Both Quinn and Strange wear their hearts on their sleeves. Every case eventually becomes personal. Quinn undertakes a personal vendetta against the pimp, Worldwide Wilson, who specializes in "turning out" underage runaways

The Washington D.C. Pelecanos writes about in his crime novels is not the city tourists know and love. There are no scenes set near the White House or the Smithsonian. Instead, he shows readers a city where so many young black children die that selling T-shirts with their pictures on them at their wakes and funerals has become a cottage industry.

Pelecanos' popularity is rising, especially in Europe, where his righteous anger about the ghettos of Washington was picked up on and he's regarded as a social commentator as much as a novelist, crime or otherwise. His books are set to the driving beat of popular music, either the old rock classics Quinn encounters at the record shop or the most current gangsta music on the streets, played loud.

Hell to Pay seems a little less focused than the previous book in this series. The mysteries are not the focus of the story, grim Washington, D.C. and the characters are. While this can be used to a writer's advantage, readers should also care about the solution to the problems established early in the book. Pelecanos doesn't introduce the primary conflict until nearly halfway through the novel, which makes the main characters a little listless, as if they're looking for something important to do.

Strange's life is complicated when a noted DC drug lord seeks his help. Strange listens to his proposition and is forced into a decision. He wants to find the killer before the police. Does he do what his heart tells him is right or does he follow his head? Either decision may be the wrong one. The book ends with Pelecanos' trademark violent confrontation and paves the way for a follow-up adventure with Strange and Quinn.

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