George Pelecanos goes Ed McBain 87th Precinct with his latest detective mystery novel The Night Gardener. This is his second consecutive outing without his usual Derek Strange Terry Quinn combo after the excellent and very original Drama City. Pelecanos has a good story to tell with The Night Gardener but is Byzantine in telling it for no apparent reason.

I discovered George Pelecanos a few years back after a profile on CBS Sunday Morning. I usually like his stuff and was sold on him as a mystery writer after reading Right As Rain though for some reason I can never really get into Soul Circus, the last Strange / Quinn offering. The Night Gardener starts off strong, it is fairly easy to turn to the next page, but after a while you definitely start wondering what happened to the main plot line.

Twenty years ago, someone killed three kids, Otto Williams, Eve Drake, and Ava Simmons. The press called him the Palindrome Killer, the cops called him the Night Gardener. Gus Ramone, who was a rookie cop making sure people did not cross the police line, is now a detective and finds himself facing a similar case. His former partner, Doc Holiday, a man who quit the force under suspicious circumstances, and the original detective on the case, T.C. Cook, end up working the night gardener case at arms length from Ramone.

George Pelecanos throws in a few other situations in this mystery novel. There is Ramone’s home life, another murder connected to the new night gardener case, and a couple of stories about men who are trying to avoid being pulled into a life of crime.

Much like Drama City, The Night Gardener has Pelecanos shooting for a bigger target than your usual detective or mystery novel. There is a clear attempt here at a more philosophical novel about the good and evil sides of society as no one in this novel is simply a good guy or a bad guy, not even Gus Ramone, though it is not a totally successful attempt.

In the end, this is a decent detective novel that carries its reader to the end. Someone new to Pelecanos might not, however, be tempted to check out another one of his books after reading this one. They should.

The Night Gardener
George Pelecanos
Little, Brown 2006
384 pages

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