Hard Revolution, by George Pelecanos

Review published on January 30, 2013. Reviewed by Mike Stafford

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[product sku=”9780753820353″]Hard Revolution is the prequel to George Pelecanos’ Derek Strange and Terry Quinn novels. Opening in 1959, but set primarily in 1968, it introduces the young Derek Strange, during his early days just after joining the Washington PD. A young, black officer in a predominantly white force, Strange’s own struggle with the establishment mirrors that of his people, and when the nation’s capital is plunged into anarchy after the assassination of Dr. King, Strange is forced to confront both them and himself.

While Derek Strange is the principal character in Hard Revolution, this is so much more than the tale of one man. Through each character, Pelecanos examines struggles both epic and everyday. In 1959, Dominic Martini is an aggressive youth already heading down the wrong path. By 1968, he has returned from Vietnam spiritually and ethically defeated. Dennis Strange, Derek’s brother, returns from the same war disabled and directionless. Though he has fire and decency, he has little gumption, and lacks the fortitude required for social mobility. Frank Vaughn, a white homicide detective, lives the apparently fulfilled life of a family man, but is almost completely hollow.

Of course, the struggle that forms the backbone of the book is a racial one, and Pelecanos is masterful in his handling of it. Setting his stall out early with reference to the increasingly complex morality of Hollywood films at the time, Pelecanos eschews simplicity in favour of total authenticity. A Greek diner owner and his black grill man have been friends for decades, but when the rioting starts, the diner owner is quick to bring out the racial slurs. When Derek Strange polices the same riots, he is scorned by his own people as a “house n____r.” Smartly, Pelecanos also observes the economic struggle as indivisible from the racial one. As the flames envelope black businesses and black employers, the sense of waste that pervades the novel is particularly profound.

When it first appeared in 2004, Hard Revolution came with a soundtrack CD, and it’s not hard to see why. Aside from complementing the meticulous historical detail, music defines each of the characters. Dennis Strange, for example, spurns Motown as black music for white people; the problems in Derek’s relationship with his current girlfriend are epitomised by her preference for disposable pop over Otis Redding.

Music even spills out into the epigram at the start of the book, with Pelecanos referencing Springsteen’s ‘Adam Raised a Cain.’ It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate source for Pelecanos to draw from; there is more than a whiff of The Boss about Pelecanos. His eye for the life of the working man, with all his basic decency and his virtue, is peerless within crime writing –

“Strange and Blue walked toward the house side by side. Both were dressed clean; both moved with their shoulders squared and their heads held up. To be young, handsome and employed, to walk into a party looking strong, standing with your main boy from childhood, trusting him to watch your back, there wasn’t a feeling much better than that.”

Rare for crime fiction, Hard Revolution is a legitimate epic novel. There are few facets of life that aren’t examined on some level here, from paternal and fraternal relationships, friendships formed across social divides, the tension between materialism and emotional fulfillment, wage slavery, the radicalism of youth versus the passivity of old age; all are covered with a deft touch by one of the masters of the genre.

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