The past folds around the present in The Night Gardener, a novel whose central mystery stretches across two decades. It opens and closes in 1985, at the latest horrific crime scene of a serial killer with a unique MO: killing kids with palindromic names and dumping the bodies in community gardens. A middle-aged cop named T.C. Cook tends to the scene, observed by two near-rookies: stable, career-minded cop Gus Ramone and hard-living raconteur Dan "Doc" Holiday. The bulk of the novel, however, takes place in the present. Ramone has advanced to homicide, Holiday has left the force in disgrace and alternates light security work with heavy drinking, and a widowed Cook struggles to find some reason to live now that a stroke has left him unable even to read. Their disparate lives are drawn together when a boy named Asa turns up dead in a garden.
The structure is more than just a gimmick. Pelecanos is best known for three series of novels with recurring characters, but apart from a cameo, they get a rest here. That makes sense in a book that's less about how history moves forward than about how it repeats itself, and what it takes to make old cycles stop. Pelecanos has developed a gift for moving his plots along while letting readers take in the scenery. The Night Gardener is as much—and often more—about Holiday's near-realizations that his lifestyle has begun to make him miserable, Ramone's recognition that the upscale school his mixed-race son attends has found new ways to recycle old racist beliefs, and a small-time criminal's decision to get out of the life, regardless of the consequences.
That's a lot to squeeze into a page-turner, but The Night Gardener's pages remain reliably turnable, even as it becomes clear that the serial-killer-tracking procedural promised by the title and the opening pages will never develop. But it's tough to complain about the bait-and-switch when the switch makes for a far more interesting read than the bait. Plenty of writers have captured the grotesque attraction of serial killers, but few so capably get how their aberrant compulsions reflect more acceptable, public patterns of destruction.