Title: The Night Gardener
Author: George Pelecanos
Release Date: August 2006
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Crime Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Publisher: Gus Ramone is "good police," a former Internal Affairs investigator now working homicide for the city's Violent Crime branch. His new case involves the death of a local teenager named Asa, whose body has been found in a local community garden.
The murder unearths intense memories of a case Ramone worked as a patrol cop twenty years earlier, when he and his partner, Dan "Doc" Holiday, assisted a legendary detective named T. C. Cook. The series of murders, all involving local teenage victims, was never solved. In the years since, Holiday has left the force under a cloud of morals charges, and now finds work as a bodyguard and driver. Cook has retired, but he has never stopped agonizing about the "Night Gardener" killings.
The new case draws the three men together on a grim mission to finish the work that has haunted them for years. All the love, regret, and anger that once burned between them comes rushing back, and old ghosts walk once more as the men try to lay to rest the monster who has stalked their dreams. Bigger and even more unstoppable than his previous thrillers, George Pelecanos achieves in The Night Gardener what his brilliant career has been building toward: a novel that is a perfect union of suspense, character, and unstoppable fate.
My Thoughts: George Pelecanos' The Night Gardener is not your typical crime drama. Pelecanos, a contributing writer on HBO's critically-acclaimed series, The Wire, doesn't just write crime dramas. He writes character studies set against the back drop of crime. What makes The Night Gardener so engrossing is Pelecanos' understanding of human nature, his awareness that people are both good and bad, and his ability to portray these qualities in his characters whether they are perpetrators, victims or investigators. It is this skill that makes The Night Gardener a book that people from all walks of life can identify with and enjoy.
We see this dichotomy in the main character of Gus Ramone, for example, who has his share of dilemmas (moral, professional and otherwise) at work and at home. As a cop, Ramone prides himself on doing his job by the book but struggles over what to do when his usual ways won't get him the results he needs. He's never respected cops who he considered "loose cannons" like former police officer Dan Holiday, whom he believes, willingly and easily stepped over the line to solve. But the day Ramone works a case that's become personal, more to him than just the job, he begins to see things differently. He finds himself questioning whether things really are as black and white as he believes or if, sometimes, passion and desire dictate approaching things from a different angle.
On the home front, in his role as parent, he faces a dilemma regarding his son's education. He loves and trusts his son, Diego, but knows it's hard out in the world beyond the family home's front door. Dangerous elements, bad influences and temptations abound - all the things every concerned parent worries about. So Ramone, after he and his wife discuss it together (while Ramone agonizes over it alone), places Diego in a "better" private school. There he discovers a different set of problems that may be far worse than his son faced while in DC's public school system. Such life changing choices leads Ramone to be constantly second guessing himself. And who among us hasn't undergone that kind of inner struggle, that personal turmoil that makes us wish life wasn't so hard? Ramone's wife is there with him, a constant companion and source of moral support. A confidante. But Ramone, it seems, is ultimately the one on who's shoulders many of these burdens rest, and we hope he eventually finds some peace of mind while trying to achieve the American dream - to be a success at his job and raise a law-abiding, well-educated family in the face of an increasingly hostile and often indifferent society.
When it comes to Ramone's wife, who happens to be a former police officer, and his partner, also a woman, Rhonda Willis, one wishes Pelecanos would have devoted more time to fleshing them out. Since the book comes in at a taut 365 pages, (which goes by at nearly light speed anyway), spending an additional few chapters providing insight into their psyches, their hopes, fears and inspirations, would have been refreshing. Though they offer well-needed and well-timed comic support and witty dialogue, it sometimes seems that's the only reason they are there. Unfortunately, as such they come off as ancillary to the story. They deserve more and we deserve to see Pelecanos turn his knack for writing introspective, distinctive and keen characters to women.
That, I feel, is about all that is warranted by way of criticism for this otherwise exciting and engrossing book. The high points heavily outweigh the shortcomings, and the dialogue, which makes up much of The Night Gardener, is clearly one of its major strengths. Pelecanos excels at subtly introducing ideas and themes through the characters' discussions. The brutally honest way in which Pelecanos' characters communicate and the often "colorful" language used is bound to cause discomfort for some readers. But without it, the book would not ring as true. In cities everywhere, (and why should D.C., the setting, be any different?), for many of the cops and criminals, peppering their language with curses, crude words and expletives comes as natural as breathing. This allows for the graphic dialogue in The Night Gardner to be employed as a tool that makes people confront some bitter truths about the way things really are. If this comes at a cost of discomfort to some readers, all the better as it then serves as a sort of wake up call to some of life's harsher aspects.
In summary, don't make the mistake of pigeonholing this book as "just" a crime drama. As I said earlier, the crime is really just the background for the people in the story. Not just good guys and bad guys. But people with relationships to each other, family members, friends, co-workers and more. It's about people and how they live, what they say and how they try and survive in today's society, rife with all the hard hitting and often ugly pitfalls that come with it. So, if you like crime dramas, if you like character studies, if you like novels that read like factual accounts, read Pelecanos' books especially The Night Gardener.