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Onyx reviews: Right As Rain by George P. Pelecanos

Write what you know. George Pelecanos has followed this conventional wisdom through his first eight novels. Up to now, his protagonists—like Pelecanos—have been Greek Americans living in Washington, D.C. In Right as Rain, Pelecanos breaks with tradition in a big way.

Derek Strange is a middle-aged black ex-cop who runs a D.C. private detective agency. Leona Wilson asks him to look into the death of her son, an off-duty black police officer who was shot in a back alley by Terry Quinn, a white cop. Quinn didn't know that Wilson, who was holding a gun to the head of a white man and acting erratically, was a fellow officer.

An official investigation cleared Quinn of any wrongdoing (the shooting, though unfortunate, was declared "right as rain") but Wilson's mother needs closure. Strange reluctantly agrees to look into the incident, unsure of what comfort he can give the grieving woman.

Strange interviews Quinn and, in spite of their racial and age differences, they find some common ground. Quinn, though exonerated, left the police force and works in a used record store. He assists Strange in his investigation, which leads them into the violent underbelly of D.C.'s drug culture. They learn that Wilson's sister Sondra is a heroin addict, selling her body for drugs in an abandoned building. Quinn and Strange believe that events leading to Wilson's death were related to Sondra's situation.

As they dig deeper, Quinn is forced to examine his own racial biases. Previously convinced that he was not prejudiced, he begins to accept that the Wilson shooting might not have occurred if the off-duty cop had been white. Quinn's new Puerto Rican girlfriend, Juana, suspects that he may be dating her to prove—to himself as much as to others—his lack of prejudice.

The investigation leads to Cherokee Coleman, a drug dealer responsible for a substantial part of the D.C. heroin trade. Coleman operates with impunity and Strange and Quinn realize that a dirty cop is probably helping protect the dealer's operation. Into the mix is thrown ex-con Ray Boone and his daddy, Earl, go-betweens for Columbian importers and Coleman. The combination of drugs, greed, double dealing, bad cops and racial tension leads to an explosive finale.

Pelecanos' novels are gritty and brash, with witty dialog that is sharp and honest. His D.C. is not the familiar city of tourists and politicians; it is the realm of desperate criminals who rule the night. It is a city where guns are as numerous as the people willing to use them; the body count in Right as Rain is impressive. As in his previous novels, the climax is a well-orchestrated and violent shootout between the heroes and the villains.

Pelecanos paints his characters with a sure hand. Each one, though flawed, has clear motivations and develops through a plausible arc over the course of the novel. Even minor characters are well established, more than just a warm body to progress the plot. Pelecanos says, "[T]he crime genre is one of the few forms of literature about people like me - working-class people. These guys rarely succeed, while most American popular fiction is about people who win."

Strange and Quinn prepare for their showdown with the drug dealers as if it might be their last day on earth, and there is no guarantee that they are going to succeed. While working-class guys don't always win in real life, Right as Rain should prove to be a winner for Pelecanos, the breakout book that expands his audience beyond his current cult following in Washington and abroad.

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