Veteran mystery writer George P. Pelecanos has carefully crafted the careers of his characters Derek Strange and Terry Quinn over the course of three novels. As a middle-aged African American and former police officer, Strange has been a successful detective for many years. Terry Quinn is an ex-cop (and part-time bookstore clerk) in his early thirties who left the force in disgrace and lacked purpose until Strange took him under his wing. Like the two previous Strange and Quinn novels Hell to Pay (2002) and Right As Rain (2001), Soul Circus stretches the limits of the crime and mystery genres as it weaves its way back and forth between the two protagonists and a smorgasbord of street predators. The novel spends more time offering commentaries on the drug problem, gun control, and western movies than it does honoring the conventions of the mystery formula.
In Soul Circus, Strange is conducting a series of background checks for convicted drug lord Granville Oliver, and Quinn is helping his investigator girlfriend locate a missing girl. Before long the two detectives are drawn into a budding war between rival factions in the drug-spawned underground. When a young woman they are hired to locate is murdered by their client, Strange and Quinn are forced to face the consequences of their actions.
Together and alone, the two dig deeper into the morass of gangs, drug dealing, and sales of illegal handguns. Before long, their investigations have landed another young woman in danger, and the two have to move quickly to rescue her and atone for their failure with the murdered woman. Each of the detectives is forced to grapple with his demons of honor, dignity, and anger, until one is lead to redemption and the other to tragedy.