George Pelecanos's Washington, D.C., is a place rife with high-living drug dealers, easily obtained guns, and a generation depleted by ignorance, excessive machismo, and misplaced trust in the equalizing power of violence. Yet PI Derek Strange "did love D.C.," as Pelecanos acknowledges in Soul Circus, his third novel (after Right as Rain and Hell to Pay) to feature this mid-50s black detective and his younger white partner, Terry Quinn. Strange's optimism may be running at even higher gear than normal here, following his marriage to his longtime secretary, Janine Baker, and his determination to be a good stepfather to her son.
Picking up where Hell to Pay left off, we find Strange working in Soul Circus on behalf of Granville Oliver, a manipulative black mobster charged with murder and racketeering, who faces the death penalty. To help his client knock that sentence down to life imprisonment, Strange will have to find a nail salon worker named Devra Stokes, who used to be the girlfriend of Phillip Wood, a former associate of Oliver's and now the prosecution's chief witness against him. Stokes had sworn out an abuse complaint against Wood, and might testify that he was behind at least one of the killings Oliver is said to have planned. But, fearing for her own safety and that of her young son, she wants no part of Oliver's defense. Meanwhile, Quinn--against his better judgment--helps a homely, unpredictable gangsta-wannabe, Mario "Twigs" Durham, locate his girlfriend, who supposedly went missing, but in fact skipped out with his drug stash. Even as the threads of this yarn come together amid a deadly gang conflict, Pelecanos stays focused on his characters--not only his intriguingly troubled sleuths, but also a deftly nuanced cop-turned-gun dealer, Ulysses Foreman. Buttressed by Pelecanos's street-slangy prose, Soul Circus delivers an un-blindered perspective on urban life (and death) that manages to be both frightening and hopeful. Not so unlike the city in which it's set. --J. Kingston Pierce