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Ex-Cops Are New Players in Pelecanos' Convincing Take on D.C. Noir

February 18, 2001|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After nine years and just as many powerhouse novels set on the mean streets of Washington, D.C., the gifted George P. Pelecanos seems on his way to a well-earned overnight success. "Right as Rain" (Little Brown, $24.95, 332 pages), his new book, is being given an extra push by his publisher, complete with a cover-tag endorsement from Elmore Leonard. Happily, the novel is valuable enough to justify whatever hype may ensue.

It introduces two new players to the author's continuing coverage of beyond-the-Beltway life. Derek Strange and Terry Quinn are both former metro cops, but there the similarity ends. Strange is a self-confident, seasoned middle-aged African American who has spent the last two decades establishing his now-flourishing detective agency. Quinn, a volatile, self-doubting Irish-American, is only recently off the force, his early retirement prompted by his fatal shooting of an off-duty black fellow officer.

When Strange is hired by the slain policeman's mother to challenge the official verdict (that her son contributed to his own death), his first step is a visit to Quinn. The big question is: Did the dead officer really draw down on Quinn or did prejudice cause Quinn to shoot from the hip? Though quick to deny it, Quinn isn't really sure.

He asks Strange if he can join the investigation. What results is a unique exploration of the insidiousness of ingrained racial prejudice, a convincing study of non-macho male bonding and a search for truth and justice among D.C. drug traffickers that turns violent and dangerous.

The author's style is as hip and street-savvy as that of his self-proclaimed fan Leonard, but his characters are more believable, their humor more organic and their goals more honorable. Hype worth believing. What a concept!

*

In her seventh novel, "Reflecting the Sky" (St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95, 312 pages), S.J. Rozan transports her two private eyes, Chinese American Lydia Chin and all-American Bill Smith, to Hong Kong on a seemingly simple errand for Chin's honorary Grandfather Geo, a macher in New York's Chinatown. But if taking a jade broach and a recently deceased man's ashes to his son in the Chinese Colony were such a cakewalk, why did the wily Geo send both sleuths? A reader would be hard-pressed to find a more likable or more disparate duo than the middle-aged, rawboned, moody and sarcastic Smith and the 20-something, small, agile and quick-witted Chin. And that doesn't even get into their different heritages.

In each novel, Rozan alternately steps into one or the other's skin, narrating the tale from that very distinctive point of view. "Sky" is Chin's story, and a captivating one at that, marked by her sense of wonder at being in Hong Kong ("Everybody in the [subway] car looked like me"), her frustration when the simple job turns into a confusing case of kidnapping and murder and, eventually, her fear when Smith is captured by a triad hit team.

The motive behind the kidnapping seems a tad incredible, but the bustling city of Hong Kong is so well described, Rozan's prose so elegant and the main characters (including the almost Westernized policeman Mark Quan) so engaging, that it seemed a small enough price to pay.

*

The Times reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O' Gorman on audio books.

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