Middle age makes a lot of people itchy to start over: get a divorce, change careers, buy an impractical vehicle. D.C. crime writer George Pelecanos, firmly in his middle period as an author (he’s 56, with 18 novels behind him), seems to know the feeling: He started this decade by starting fresh. In his 2011 novel, The Cut, he introduced Spero Lucas, a 20-something Marine vet who saw combat in Iraq but is sure—he’s sure, he’s sure—he can handle any lingering PTSD symptoms. Back in D.C., he freelances himself to a defense lawyer but largely works by instinct, going wherever money and, often, women, lead him.
Here’s how Pelecanos summarizes his new hero’s motivations early in The Double, his second Lucas novel: “Sex, work, money, and a comfortable bed. Everything he dreamed of when he was overseas. A guy didn’t need anything else.” Spero’s carefree, minister-without-portfolio swagger loudly echoes of Nick Stefanos, the hero of Pelecanos’ earliest novels: Both love weed, indie rock, and mom’s Greek cooking, and hate the bullshit that poseurs and bigots sling. (Though Spero can be a poseur too: Scrutinizing Spero’s working-class duds, his lawyer benefactor says, “Your look is just as studied as mine, in its own way.”) The difference is that Pelecanos, with three decades of experience, can give Spero deeper moral complications—he riffs more on the fact that sex, work, money, and a comfy bed are nice but largely selfish needs. Reading 1992’s A Firing Offense was a joyride with somebody who wasn’t sure where he was headed; reading The Double is a shotgun ride with a guy who you know is bound to hit a wall, hard, at some point.
Not just yet, though. The plot of The Double turns on Spero’s hunt for a missing painting stolen from an Adams Morgan woman who got suckered into a relationship with a swindler named Billy King. The painting, itself called “The Double,” depicts the heads of two men, and the book is thick with double lives and doppelgangers. Both Spero and Billy impersonate others to get ahead, and the two men’s motivations and actions have enough dirt on them to blur the line between heroism and criminality. “You are me, fella,” Billy tells Spero during their climactic confrontation in a middle-of-nowhere southern Maryland cabin. “You’re as close to me as I’ve come across in a long while.”
Duality-of-man stuff like this has powered stories from Jekyll and Hyde to Kirk and Khan, and in the case of The Double, it’s not entirely persuasive. Part of the reason is that Billy’s character, aside from a melodramatic three-page biographical sketch near the very end, is consistently Black Hat, with needs even baser and self-evading than Spero’s. (“Deep water, powerboats, trim, and drink. It was what he was made for.”) Pelecanos doesn’t endow him with the interior life that he gives Spero, who has the good upbringing that allows him to recognize the moral ambiguity in everything, from his skirt-chasing to D.C.’s post-Chocolate City demographics. (“Lucas couldn’t decide if the changes were positive. Maybe it was just a cultural and economic evolution. Neither good nor bad, just different.”)
Pelecanos’ universe has its rules, and one of them is that you never root against the guy who takes a moment to think about what socioeconomic change means. “The D.C. area is one of the most interesting regions in the country to live in precisely because we have these kinds of arguments, openly and heatedly, every day,” Pelecanos wrote in the New Republic in 2007, implying that ignoring the argument is a kind of dereliction of civic duty. Spero’s upstanding nature means his mean streak has limits, though midway through The Double Pelecanos pushes at it in an interesting way. With the help of a fellow vet, Spero nabs an art dealer connected to Billy, and the man’s humiliation and torture at Spero’s hands is a rare moment where his post-Iraq faulty wiring, self-loathing, and capacity for cruelty are fully revealed. Spero’s buddy is aghast at what happened to the art dealer. “You robbed him of his manhood,” he says—in Pelecanos’ world, the worst thing you can do to a man short of killing him.
The chief flaw of The Double is that Spero’s own Black Hat moment doesn’t last long, and doesn’t spill into the rest of the novel with the intensity such a scene would suggest. Pelecanos simply muddies Spero up just enough for him to have something to recover from. That’s equally true of the fling he pursues with a married woman who schedules regular trysts at a tony hotel four blocks from the White House, but starts having second thoughts when he cuts his hand on a shard of broken glass in the suite’s bathroom. None dare call it stigmata, but doubt creeps in shortly after.
The Double is a pleasure in itself, built by the same smooth narrative machinery that Pelecanos has fine-tuned in recent years. (TV writing seems to have done much to declutter his prose.) But alongside The Cut, it feels like a rehearsal for a bigger and deeper story that hasn’t yet come into view. The two books are as satisfying—and unsatisfying—as watching the first two episodes of The Wire, where various throughlines and motivations are only just hinted at. “Fuck it,” are the last words Spero utters in The Double, and the novel closes with the strong suggestion he’ll pay for his attitude of unconcern.
That’s the hope, anyway. Early in The Double, Pelecanos takes a moment to sketch out Spero’s reading tastes. He likes his share of literary fiction (“whatever that was”) but mainly likes “a good story told with clean, efficient writing, a plot involving a problem to be solved or surmounted, and everyday characters the reader could relate to.” As statements of purpose go, that line has as much false humility in it as Spero’s Dickies and Carhartt outfits do—Pelecanos knows as well as anybody that a slick plot and deep themes can cohabitate. Spero Lucas solves a crime here, but the real problem to be solved or surmounted is Spero himself. That work remains unfinished.
Photo by Max Hirshfeld