(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

From the hundreds of crime novels published annually, what is it that makes a few stand out? Undoubtedly the style of the writer makes a difference, and so does the ability to depict memorable characters, especially the main investigator and sometimes a partner, but the ability to capture a particular ambiance or location also seems important. This is the strength of George P. Pelecanos, author of Hell to Pay. Pelecanos has been writing about Washington, D.C., for a long time. It was the setting for his previous novel, Right as Rain (2001), to which Hell to Pay is a loose sequel. Before Right as Rain, Pelecanos wrote a series of D.C. novels centered around descendants of Greek immigrants, but in his last two novels, Pelecanos has shifted his focus to D.C.’s majority African American community. He seems to have made the shift with remarkable success, based on his close knowledge of the city’s ambiance.

Pelecanos hardly mentions the official Washington, D.C., of tourists, government, embassies, and universities; instead, he sets his novels in the mostly run-down, crime-ridden neighborhoods where generations of permanent residents, an increasing number of them African American, have lived. These neighborhoods are a collection of America’s worst urban ills, where homegrown terrorists have ruled the streets for decades. Yet, surprisingly, a sense of community exists in these neighborhoods similar to that in a small town. People know each other by first name and the social order reflects close alliances that often go back to childhood or high school (for people who got that far) and that cross the boundaries of the law with ease. Nonetheless, a fairly strict street code operates: Drug dealers stick to their territories, law-abiding residents pretend to be unafraid but do not look punks straight in the eye, the police look the other way at minor offenses (such as smoking marijuana), and “mean dudes” are to be avoided, since they have reputations to uphold.

The need to uphold one’s reputation for being mean, and thereby keep one’s manhood intact, leads to one of the novel’s main plot lines. Petty drug dealer Garfield “D” (short for “Death”) Potter has, as his nickname implies, a reputation for being mean. To show how mean he is, he shoots his partner’s dog. It does not bother him that the teenage girls with whom he has sex are afraid of him. When Potter and his two partners rob a craps game and Potter pistol-whips an old man who talks back, he even feels it necessary to announce his name to the world: “Can’t nobody in this city f—k with Garfield Potter.” Naturally Potter feels concern when Lorenze Wilder, who owes him $100 for marijuana, does not pay up. If the word gets around town, Potter’s reputation will be ruined. Only one thing can save it: Lorenze Wilder has to be killed; then people will know not to mess with Garfield “D” Potter.

It does not seem to matter to Potter’s reputation that he needs the help of his two partners to settle with Wilder, nor that it takes several forays before they finally catch up with him. In the meantime, the threesome interrelate (and the suspense builds). They unconsciously parody a family group, dependent on one another but observing a pecking order, with Potter the leader (or father figure for “his boys”), Carlton Little number two, and Charles White at the bottom. This order is reflected in their seating arrangement within the car—Potter driving, Little in the front passenger seat, and White in back—and in their other activities. Potter makes all the decisions, and, as last in line, White has to go out to fetch the fast food. Generally, however, they share the same tastes in clothes (jeans and Nautica shirts), shoes (Air Maxes, Timberland), music (rap, played loud), girls (dumb teenagers), fast food chains (Popeye’s, Taco Bell, and McDonald’s, although Potter rejects McDonald’s as too greasy), and good times (sitting around the living room watching television and getting high on malt liquor and marijuana).

Eventually, more than halfway through the novel, the threesome catch up with Lorenze Wilder, block his car at a take-out ice cream shop, and spray his windshield full of bullets. Lorenze dies instantly, but so, unfortunately, does his eight-year-old nephew,...

(The entire section is 1758 words.)