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
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
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
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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