Series detective fiction makes for steady work and a loyal fan base, but it's exciting to see a writer of particular talent stretch his wings beyond those conventions and try something new, especially when the new builds so carefully on the strengths of the old. George Pelecanos made his name with the Nick Stefanos private-eye novels and other series set in Washington DC. But after a stint on the production staff of The Wire, he's expanded his scope beyond signature characters. In a series, readers want to know how familiar characters will respond to new situations. But in The Night Gardener and his latest, The Turnaround, Pelecanos wants to explore how an explosive event creates characters, and how it will continue to shape them for years to come.
Set in Pelecanos' familiar DC environs, The Turnaround introduces Alex Pappas, the teenage son of a Greek lunch-stand owner, a good kid with unfortunate taste in friends. One fateful day, Alex is in the back seat when his pals Billy and Peter decide to drive across the tracks to the black part of town and raise some hell. But they get stuck in a dead end with three toughs in their way—one of whom, tired of white boys flinging racial epithets at his mom while joyriding through the neighborhood, recently got himself a gun.
The first section of the book ends with a vicious beating and a gunshot. Then Pelecanos picks the story up decades later; Alex, one eye permanently drooping from his injuries, has taken over the diner. Raymond, one of the black kids who assaulted the trio, works at Walter Reed, rehabilitating Iraq veterans. Just as the two make wary contact, one of the other assailants plots to blackmail the white boys whose testimony once put him in jail.
The Turnaround tells its stories masterfully, constricting the characters' lives into a white-hot singularity of violence, then observing them as they either struggle to break free of its gravitational pull, or give in to its delineation of their orbit. As he always does, Pelecanos builds these characters out of tiny, perfectly observed details: food, geography, basketball, music. The Turnaround isn't an oddity in the author's stellar career—it's just another intimate, suspenseful, gritty, hopeful slice of life—but it does indicate that Pelecanos can chart his own course through the crime genre and beyond.