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Onyx reviews: The Martini Shot by George Pelecanos

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 11/24/2014

George Pelecanos is the author of nearly 20 novels, including several ongoing series, and was a writer and producer on the HBO series The Wire and Treme. His short fiction output, however, is rather sparse. Here, in his first collection, he brings together seven short stories and a novella. Six of the stories were published in anthologies between 1996 and 2011. One story and the title novella are previously unpublished. 

Pelecanos' typical stomping grounds is the Washington DC area, including Baltimore, which was the setting for The Wire. His books tend toward noir, and his stories are representative of the genre as well. Most are told in the first person and involve people—often minorities or multiethnic characters—who are involved in the world of crime. The odd man out, as it were, is "Chosen," the charming and somewhat plotless story of a Greek husband and wife who have children of their own but who take in three others, forming a mixed-race family. It is the backstory of Spero Lucas, the protagonist of The Cut and other novels.

Often, the best intentions don't work out as planned. "The Confidential Informant," Verdon, the son of an ailing Vietnam vet, is after a thousand-dollar payday by assisting the police in a homicide investigation. This unlucky wannabe hero, who isn't as street-wise as he thinks, clings to the hope of this reward.

Another kid caught between the mean streets and the cops is the protagonist of "String Music." Tonio Harris likes to play basketball, which in some D.C. neighborhoods can be a dangerous proposition, especially if you're pretty good at it. He's surviving the streets, hopes to find a job, and bridles at the way he's treated because he's black. The story features a second narrator, a veteran police sergeant who would have been at home on The Wire.

In "When You're Hungry," an experienced and successful insurance investigator travels from Miami to Recife, Brazil to confirm a sighting of a man who supposedly died in a boating accident. John Moreno came from poverty, but he's now used to the finer things in life and has no patience for anyone who "chooses" to remain in poverty. The insurance payout was $2 million, so there's a lot at stake and one investigator has already died pursuing Guzman. Hunger drives people to do desperate things, as Moreno discovers do this dismay.

The book's only original short story, "Miss Mary's Room," is about dishonor among thieves and the brutal way some kids grow up when they get involved with a life of crime. The protagonist feels no remorse for what happens to a lifelong friend, but he has tender thoughts for the dead man's mother, who always welcomed him into her home.

The unnamed narrator of "Plastic Paddy" feels like Nick Stefanos, the protagonist of several of Pelecanos' early novels. The story is set in 1985 in an Irish pub. The focus is on a man named John Tool who has become so enamored of Irish culture after discovering that his great-grandfather was Irish that he calls himself Paddy, listens to The Chieftains and roots for Notre Dame. Already possessed of an amped-up personality, Paddy is cocaine fueled this evening and spoiling for trouble. His target is another pub patron whose only offense is that he looks like an Arab, and the evening goes downhill from there when Paddy drags the narrator along on a drug deal that goes bad.

"The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us" is a period piece about a 28-year-old Greek immigrant named Vasili who gets a job bussing tables at a restaurant because Nick Stefanos was leaving to start his own place, taking another employee with him, and he recommended Vasili for the job. He gets tangled up with a Pinkerton spy who is pretending to be a waiter to infiltrate a unionization movement during the Depression. 

In the title novella. Victor Ohanion writes for a serialized crime show much like The Wire. The story provides an insider's view of how television shows are made and what everyone involved in the production does. After setting the stage, so to speak, Pelecanos ups the ante when one of the gaffers on the crew is murdered and Ohanion decides to act like one of his characters and try to solve the crime. The story takes its name from television jargon: the martini shot is the last shot of the day, after which everyone presumably goes off to have martinis. The story feels a bit like a roman clef, with Pelecanos portraying an ambitious director who likes to overshoot scenes and stage complex camera shots for his film clip reel, and a difficult actress who needs pampering. Pelecanos is very familiar with the lingo ("crew has the set") and the way this world works. At times, he lapses into screenplay format, especially in scenes that Victor might have written himself for the show, such as an interview with the real police after the gaffer is killed. While the violence is somewhat restrained compared to what happens in some of the other stories, this tale features many pages of explicit sex between Victor and his girlfriend, the show's Art Director. Victor assembles a rag-tag crew for the final showdown, taking full advantage of the filmmaking expertise available to him, and art imitates life as he steals from this adventure to get material for a future episode of the show.

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