Book eighteen: Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos is one of the writers of HBO's The Wire, the best show on television. In fact, it's possibly the best TV show ever made. If you believe British TV critics, you may be under the impression that the best show on television is The Sopranos. The critics are wrong. Get series one of The Wire on DVD and see for yourself. Anyway, I'm supposed to be writing about the book. This is the first Pelecanos novel I've read and I picked an unusual starting point. His recent books have followed a pair of detectives, Derek Strange and Terry Quinn. Hard Revolution goes back to the Sixties and takes place during Strange's early career as a police.

I suspect there are probably a lot of things I missed that fans of the series would pick up on. I did notice a walk-on by Quinn, which would probably delight regulars, but any other nuggets about the man Strange will become passed me by.

Like most of Pelecanos's novels, Hard Revolution is set in Washington DC. The story takes place against a background of simmering racial tension that finally boils over in the days following the murder of Dr Martin Luther King. Almost every character represents a particular stance on race but Pelecanos is careful not to make them one dimensional.

Strange, for example, believes he is protecting his community but has to contend with the derision of other black people who see him as a traitor. His brother Derek is angry at white oppression but his refusal to engage with the system gives him a convenient excuse for his laziness.

Both boys are disappointed in what they see as their father's uncomplaining acceptance of his lesser role in society but later we learn that he suppresses his own anger at the system to protect his sons.

This complexity is sadly absent from the book's bad guys. There are two trios of villains in the story, one black, one white. Each is led by an irredeemably evil man, while the henchmen follow almost without question. The book would have been far better if the characters had been as nuanced and sympathetic as those in The Wire, where the line between good and evil is frequently unclear.

One area where the book matches The Wire is the dialogue. Pelecanos has a brilliant ear for the way people speak and this, together with the tangible sense of place, really brings the book to life.

He also has an obvious love of popular culture. The book is littered with references to sporting events of the day, loving descriptions of classic cars and nerdish details on soul music.

The music in particular underscores the book's theme of racial prejudice and hypocrisy. Even the racist white characters in the novel listen to black music, although they prefer the sanitised sound of Motown. The black characters generally go for Stax/Volt records, though Derek makes an exception for Marvin Gaye.

This isn't an outstanding book. It's pitched somewhere between thriller and race/character study but doesn't quite manage to be either. Still, it's worth reading for the dialogue and Pelecanos's exhaustive background details. I'll definitely read another book by him.