The Night Gardener is the latest book by George Pelecanos. Pelecanos is a local writer here in Silver Spring, Maryland who has written several other crime novels but is better known for his dual role as a producer and writer for the HBO tv hit series The Wire. Since I find The Wire engaging and I live in Silver Spring, I felt compelled to read this novel.
The Night Gardener showcases Pelecanos’ street savvy much the same as does The Wire, an inner city crime drama set in drug-infested high rises in Baltimore. When a dead teenager is found in a community garden in Washington, D.C., police suspect foul play. A few long timers and a retired cop suspect something worse: has the Palindrome Murderer returned? The dead boy’s name is Asa, after all, a palindrome (spells the same thing backwards as forwards), and shares two other striking similarities to the 3 palindrome victims of the early 1980s: age and location of the body, a community garden.
For one cop, Ramone, the death is more personal. Asa is a friend of his son. Although the case is not assigned to him, he investigates at the request of the victim’s family. Through sheer coincidence, an ex-cop named Holliday who resigned rather than risk facing charges of misconduct some years earlier, was at the garden the night of Asa’s death. He anonymously called in his discovery of the boy’s body, then, upon realizing the possibility that the Palindrome Murderer was active again, sought out retired Detective T.C. Cooke. Cooke, who led the Palindrome investigation, rarely failed to close a case. Retiring without closing the Palindrome case left him frustrated and eager to team up with Holliday to do some extracurricular investigating. Thus two intersecting, unofficial investigations seek to find a murderer- Cooke thinks he knows who it is and with Holliday chases down a Palindrome suspect from long ago. Ramone, meanwhile, investigates Asa’s secrets in a painful effort to uncover the forces that brought this young boy’s life to a premature end.
Pelecanos brings these men together in a convincing demonstration that life proceeds in shades of gray. By book’s end, the reader knows what happened to Asa and has pretty definite ideas about the Palindrome Murders as well. Telling how these revelations unfold would ruin the story, but what makes the conclusion of this story compelling is its imperfection. Real life does not always offer a complete tying of loose ends and the opportunity to divest oneself of old demons is never guaranteed.
Having lived in the neighborhood where Ramone lived and where Asa’s body was found, I was at times startled by the reality of Pelecanos’ descriptions. One of the interesting subplots of this book is Ramone’s struggle to interpret the effects of events on his family. Married to an African American woman, and raising a mixed-race son, he faces daily choices in reacting to the world around him as either neutral or racially-slanted. His son’s trivial brushes with the middle school bureaucracy that result in suspensions and the label of “insubordinate” made me laugh out loud so close was it to my own experience in the community. But Ramone, who has lied about his address to move his child into the school, faces both the guilt of his deception and the uncertainty of the correctness of his choice. Pelecanos’ knowledge of the milieu allows the story to progress without any dissonant bumps.
If you like mystery, crime, or detective novels or if you’re a fan of the TV show The Wire, take a chance on this book.