The Night Gardener By George Pelecanos


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This was my first time reading George Pelecanos. This is a cross between Elmore Leonard and Richard Price. It has Leonard’s knack for bold characterization and sharp dialogue combined with Price’s gift for storytelling in an urban setting.

A serial killer, who killed three victims twenty years before has apparently struck again. This brings together a disparate group of characters and storylines. The murder is just a framing device for one of the best novels I’ve read this year. It’s a story that takes unexpected twists and turns. A story that is at times moving, at times violent.

On the cover of this edition of the book, Stephen King says of Pelecanos: “Perhaps the greatest living American Crime Writer”. Mr. King, in this book, Mr. Pelecanos rises above any genre.
372 This almost turned out to be The Little Friend of Pelecanos books, but much like that one, the pleasure was all in the journey & not in trying to figure out who the night gardener really was or just who was killing those kids with the palindromic names. I left the obsession to the police & sat back & enjoyed the ride. I went about it backwards a bit with this guy, reading his newer stuff first & saving the older for last. I'm retroactively pleased that I did it this way because if you ask me, his older work is where it's at - but here's the depressing part: I think I have two books left to read & then George & I will be parting ways for a bit. I think I'll need Wire marathon to cheer me up when that happens. 372 In the bygone age of 1985, detective TC Cooke, with young cops Gus Ramone and Dan Holiday in tow, tried to save a string of murders dubbed the Palindrome Killer, aka the Night Gardener, and failed. Twenty years later, a murder with the same telltale characteristics occurs. Has the killer resurfaced? And can the three men, now in vastly different lives, crack the case?

The Night Gardener is a police procedural mystery set in Washington DC. At least, at first glance. It's really the tale of fathers and sons, secrets, and redemption. Gus Ramone, a veteran homicide cop, has his life shaken when a friend of his young son's turns up dead of a gunshot wound in a community garden. Since the young man's name is Asa and the situation is similar to the decades old Palindrome Killer crime, the police speculate there is a link. Retired cop TC Cooke and disgraced former cop Dan Holiday both get wind of it and launch an investigation of their own. Couple that with the story of some rival gangsters and a briefcase of stolen money and it's off to the races.

Much like the rest of George Pelecanos' novels, music, basketball, and car talk are often featured in the dialogue. Derek Strange's wife and dog make cameo appearances, as does Pelecanos himself as an unnamed passenger in a limo driven by Holiday. I kept waiting for one of the characters to get a drink at The Spot so would could check in with Nick Stefanos but it was not to be. Pelecanos revisits familiar themes like racism and what it's like to grow up black and poor in Washington DC.

As usual, his characters come right off the page. Ramone wants more than anything to keep his family safe. Holiday wants a chance at redemption. Cooke wants to solve the case that haunted the final days of his career. Even the bad guys were far from one dimensional. Several knew they were in over their heads and acted accordingly.

The revelation about Asa's death and what led him down that road were pretty hard hitting. The big gunfight was even more brutal than I thought it was going to be. The ending for the rest of the characters wasn't what I was expecting but was fitting.

Every time I return to the Washington DC of George Pelecanos, it's like I never left. As usual, Pelecanos kept me entertained for the duration. 3.5 out of 5 stars. 372 The side of me that can get sucked into watching a Law and Order: (X)* and then watch the next eight episodes also airing that day enjoyed this book. The part of me that feels disgusted with myself after an orgy of Dick Wolf created police procedurals didn't care for this book so much.

Reading the police procedural stuff I could feel the critical part of my mind snapping off. I'm surprised that I didn't leave the subway coming home last night with paper cuts from turning the pages so fast. I can usually read fifteen to thirty pages on my commute, and I read twenty pages of this book on the first morning I brought it to work on the train. But last night I clocked in fifty-five pages, without any delays. The book had the satisfaction of a sugar rush though.

There was promise of more than cheap entertainment here, but it never really developed. Pelecanos can do better than this, and the other novels of his that I read do do (hahaha, I said do do, like poo) better than this one. Not that this book is bad, it's very entertaining, but it's not good. The police stuff is ok, but in a post Homicide/The Wire (ok not post The Wire but The Wire was already in full swing when this book came out) there needs to be more. More what? I don't really know, I don't normally read this stuff, but portraying cops are regular folks with there own good and bad sides and all of that can only be taken so far, there needs to be something else behind the story, and in this book the story seemed to never really catch. Although, even without a satisfying story this was still a very entertaining book to read.

* where X stands for either the original LAO or any of the spin-offs. 372 OMICIDI PALINDROMI
Aveva spalle ampie e squadrate, il viso gradevole, con gli zigomi in parte coperti da lunghe treccine. Gli occhi erano di un marrone intenso ma poco espressivi, l’ideale per un tassidermista.

”L’imbalsamatore” di Matteo Garrone, 2002.

Mi piace come scrive George Pelacanos.

Le sue crime novel sono diverse: hanno un ritmo andante, che sa prendersi il giusto tempo per costruire atmosfera situazione caratteri, senza fretta senza strappi senza salti.

Mi piace che non usi effetti, men che meno effettacci, che non sprechi il sangue, che risparmi sui pezzetti di cervello fatti saltare in aria da una pallottola.

Mi piace che le sue storie, anche se parlano di droga, crimine, violenza, che non sono tanto la mia quotidianità, sembrino così verosimili, e così credibili.

Mi piace che i suoi personaggi abbiano un’età e la dimostrino, che siano a volte coi fianchi larghi, a volte calvi, a volte bassi, a volte magri allampanati, e non sempre semidei come nei libri di Don Winslow o Jefferson Parker.

Mi piace che tratti le donne come gli uomini, e non con il machismo solito di questo genere di letteratura.

Mi piace che i suoi libri siano tutti ambientati a Washington.

E mi piace la sua insistenza nel descrivere percorsi stradali, toponomastica, architettura urbana, arredamento, modelli di automobili e altri aspetti che potrebbero sembrare marginali.

Mi piace perché il Male nei suoi libri non è sovrumano, diabolico, infernale, ma sembra che abiti nella porta accanto.

Mi piace perché mi sembra diverso, fuori dal coro.


Crime in a George Pelecanos novel is so confronting and unnerving that it is almost as unsettling as reading true-crime. His depictions of squalor, violence, bangers, urban poverty, and police procedures are as real and engrossing as his characters. In THE NIGHT GARDNER, Pelecanos delivers everything I’ve come to expect – deep characterisation, a free flowing yet multidimensional plot and most of all, pure noir amongst a backdrop of a heinous crime. Adding yet another string to this impressive bow, is the sense of continuity with Gus and Doc living in the same fictional world as Derek Strange (Quinn and Strange PI novels) and the criminal known as Red Fury (WHAT IT WAS) of which the wannabe gangers of THE NIGHT GARDNER idolise with a deluded sense of hero-worship.

Detective Gus Ramone, haunted and a little segregated from the inner circle of policing due to his sting in IA is tasked with solving a homicide of a young man which has similar hallmarks to a string of murders 20yrs ago. Back then, Gus as a green beat cop along with Doc were in awe of the T.C. Cook, a solid detective with an exception case closure rate. Fast forward to present day, Gus is now a leading homicide police, Doc is driving cars after a less than honourable discharge from the force and Cook is retired and on his last legs – yet all three become reunited by a crime never solved which seems to have surfaced once again.

THE NIGHT GARNDER, while predominantly a police procedural with noir trappings is really about character and the challenges that face inner city living minorities and heartache. Gus, a father first, sees this latest crime hit too close to home with the latest vic, Asa, a boyhood friend of his teenage son. Coupled with that loss is the undercurrent of racial vilification at the school Gus’ son attends and other such incidences which threaten to send Gus’ family into a downward spiral.

While Doc, a cop turned driver turned bordering alcoholic, the chance to be involved in a real case literally falls in his lap. Adding to the discovery of the body is a shady recollection through a drink infused haze which also threatens to test the mantle of another cop who may or may not have been in the vicinity of the crime when it was committed. Doc, seeks out Cook in a bid to right his wrong and shine his somewhat tarnished rep that forced him out of policing and finally put a stop to the killings.

THE NIGHT GARDNER is one of the best novels I’ve read by Pelecanos. He manages to create a real sense of time and place, putting the reader inside the shoes of Gus, Doc, and others. While THE NIGHT GARNDER is a standalone, I found it beneficial and more enjoyable having read WHAT IT WAS prior, as the character Red Fury, eluted to in THE NIGHT GARNDER is seen in a whole new light having read about his escapades and criminal legend in the Derek Strange novel.

In summary – a must read for fans of Derek Strange, Washington D.C. crime fiction, THE WIRE, and noir. 5 stars.

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372 this is an extremely good police procedural. it is so good that it makes me less sad to have already read Lush Life, to have exhausted all episodes of The Wire, and to know that richard price won't write another epic for another few years (he ain't fast, that man). in fact, a quick perusal of his work has led me to understand that george pelecanos does not always write police procedurals, and i have made a little deal with myself that, not to spoil the pleasure of this novel, to keep it lingering on my tongue for as long as possible, i will read all of his police procedurals before i read any other of his book, if at all. because, i've realized, i like police procedurals more than any other crime&mystery writing, hands down. this is personal so i won't bore you with it. but let me tell you why this is so good.

first of all, it's paradigmatic of a certain way of looking at police work in cities (it's set in D.C.) made edgy to the verge of hysteria by race, class, and the tensions of gentrification. richard price does this in Freedomland, Clockers, and Lush Life, especially the last (gentrification was not as present to the collective mind when Freedomland and Clockers were written). this paradigm looks at cops as real people with life-issues, problems, and, occasionally, serious instances of fucked-upedness. it also endeavors not to demonize cops, but to make them genuinely interested in people, including the losers they occasionally have to send to jail but would rather not. in The Wire, richard price's work, and here, cops are often lonely, often working extra jobs so they don't have to go home, often corrupt but not too much, often indulging in exploitative sexual relationships with informants, often keen on the bottle, often sexist, racists, and generally unpleasant. you don't like them but you understand them, especially when they are good police who care about their job more than about the politics of policing.

pelecanos squeezes all these features into this book so artfully that i say this one volume exemplifies how they work (or are meant to work) together better than any of the instances i mentioned above.

then there are the cops you love, lorenzo in Freedomland, matti and his female partner (what's her name?) in Lush Life, and, here, rhonda and ramone, who are, both of them, very well designed and very cool. i have to regret that these boy writers make men a lot more complex than women. in The Wire kima is a fairly complex, if not fleshed out, character, but both the female detectives in Lush Life and rhonda in The Night Gardener are wise and wise-cracking, no-nonsense female cops, tough as nails, soft as leavened dough, and way too busy to shoot the fat with the guys. they are great and you love them, but it'd be nice to move away from the stereotype.

but the complexity of this story is the real treat. the layering. the interweaving of police work, personal psychology, social issues, multiple and only apparently intricate plot-lines -- all doused with hard-boiled ethical reflections on the value of childhood, parenting, and community life. nice. 372 Pelecanos dabbles with police procedural in The Night Gardener but doesn't follow through with it. He adds an unrelated, unnecessary plot of a drug deal gone wrong that ends in a violent shootout. More drug deals have gone wrong in Pelecanos' works than in careers of about ten-twenty drug dealers put together. So it is Pelecanos' bread and butter. The stuff he has been writing for about two decades but adding it shows he probably didn't have as much confidence in the main narrative; which is a pity. As the main story about an unsolved serial killer in 1980s and a present day murder of a fifteen year old that looks like the serial killer is back is pretty decent.

I don't think Pelecanos has ever written a whodunnit before and for a first time author the central mystery is well written. It is not shocking or complex but realistic and satisfactory. The best part of his writing is the atmosphere that oozes out of every page and the authentic working class characters. Pelecanos has been good at both those aspects for a long time now but as always the characters are not very interesting and the plot is scattered taking too long to get going. The first half of the book drags, the second half is much better.

My beef with Pelecanos has never been his writing but always his approach. He tries too many things in a single book and never does anything perfectly. In The Night Gardener had the focus been kept on the squad of detectives as is the case with most police procedurals, it would have been much better. I didn't mind the extracurricular investigation being done by a bunch of ex-cops connected to old serial killer case. But when you add the subplots of drug deal gone wrong and the casual racism that the protagonist's son faces in his new school, it becomes a case of diluting every individual plot thread. None of them are boring but they simply don't have enough pages devoted to them to be really developed.

There is his usual preaching of how tough it is to be black or poor, both true no doubt but done with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And he also bestows on his readers his obsessions with music, sports and car trivia that will go over the heads of ninety percent of his readers. But for all of his quirks Pelecanos is not bad when he actually concentrates on writing a crime story, it is sad that he is never content with doing only that. This makes The Night Gardener a typical Pelecanos book - consistently solid without ever being remarkable. Rating - 3/5. 372 I have found my personal literary grail: a worthy fictional successor to David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. When it comes to (East Coast) urban noir, this is the best of the best. 372

“That was Freda Payne, and I don’t care what she did,” said Bonano. He blew into a deck of Marlboro Lights and watched as the filtered end of one popped out. “She didn’t do this.”

Standard George Pelecanos cigarette extraction. Even in The Night Gardener with none of the usual Greek suspects. But we find the metro DC police, serial murders and teenagers in troubled waters. As usual.

But wait, here is Derek Strange on page 152. Now I am beginning to feel comfortable. This is the Pelecanos that I love. And there is the dog Greco, a boxer, following close behind. Just like I remembered. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Pelecanos doesn’t mind staking out a political or social position occasionally. And it doesn’t hurt that I usually agree with him. I like an author who is on the correct side of the issues!
But you know, locking people up willy-nilly for drugs doesn’t do shit but destroy families and turn citizens against the police. And I’m not talking about criminals. I’m talking about law-abiding citizens, ‘cause it seems like damn near everyone in low-income D.C. got a relative or friend who’s been locked up on drug charges. Used to be, folks could be friendly with police. Now we’re the enemy. The drug war ruined policing, you ask me. And it made the streets more dangerous for cops. Any way you look at it, it’s wrong.

And some sociology of homosexuality in the black community that even Pelecanos, who often alludes to topical issues, had avoided thus far. This is a bold move, if somewhat delayed, in this book published in 2006.
“Black teenagers do commit suicide. Matter of fact, the suicide rate of black teenagers is on the upswing. One of the benefits of being admitted to the middle and upper class. You know, the cost of money. Not to mention easy access to guns. And a lot of black gay kids just know they’re never gonna be accepted. Part of it’s that unspoken thing in our culture. Some of my people gonna forgive you for just about anything, except that one thing, you know what I’m saying?“

Another Pelecanos specialty found in every book: the moment of death from the inside. No afterlife.
Dunne listened to the crickets and stared up at the branches and the stars. I cannot die, he thought. But soon the sensations of sound and sight faded to nothing, and Grady Dunne joined Raymond Benjamin and Romeo Brock in death.

And another Pelecanos specialty: ambiguous guys. Not really bad guys but not totally good guys either. George Pelecanos writes about people with dreams as well as nightmares.

And what about Derek Strange and Greco and Janine on page 152? It turns out they were just there in a sentimental cameo appearance. But there was some real sentimentality at the end of the book.
Soon it began to drizzle for the second time that night. The drops grew heavier and became visible in the headlights of the cars. It was said by some of the police on the scene that God was crying for the girl in the garden. To others, it was only rain.


When the body of a local teenager turns up in a community garden, veteran homicide detective Gus Ramone teams up with T. C. Cook, a legendary, now retired detective, and Dan Doc Holiday, his former partner who left the force under a cloud of suspicion. The Night Gardener