A TWOFER: THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT

Two writers on one of the better TV series have new August titles, one a novel, the other a collection of stories. Each was a book I would ordinarily spend some time with if not read all the way through. Neither of the two authors was a stranger to me; each is a notable prose stylist who dips well beyond the boundaries of plot, into the more memorable terrain of character and the moral choices that confront them.

In the process of character and moral choice ranking among the most memorable aspects of fiction, plot often falls to a maintenance level. How many of us recall the real plot issues of the so-called Great Books? We find it easier to relate the names of characters and their goals to specific titles. Dorothy was not too happy in Oz; she wanted to get back to Kansas. Holden Caulfield was pretty ticked off about insincerity and phoniness. Yossarian wanted to have his combat missions applied to his record so that he could be sent home. But what were the plots?

Plots, I argue, are mere springboards to more enduring issues. Subjecting characters to the rigors of plot allows the author to imply and infer greater issues. We may not recall with clarity the plot of “Middlemarch” or “Pride and Prejudice,” but having watched the characters maneuver through them, much as a downhill skier navigates a slalom course, we appreciate and retain the author’s greater intent.

The TV series I had in mind unfolds on the streets of Baltimore, more like a maze than a conventional plot, certainly more labyrinthine than most TV fare. It is “The Wire,” (new season starts September 10 on HBO). The two writers associated with it are George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane.

Pelecanos’s new work, easily his best to date, is a novel, “The Night Gardener.” Dennis Lehane, best known for “Mystic River,” has produced a collection of short stories, “Coronado and Other Stories.” Although I came upon them together by mere accident, they could be read together because of the way each title, in its unique way, is a prism of the same source of light – people attempting to get things right but having to accept a negotiated settlement.

“The Night Gardener” is a morality play in modern dress, set in the grotty, uncomfortable suburbs of Washington D.C. Three cops, one a legendary, retired detective; another a man for whom being a cop was a life’s dream; the third a by-the-book detective, all cross paths in pursuit of circumstances that may herald the return to activity of a serial killer who had remained dormant for nearly 20 years.

One of the luxuries novelists have over their sister and brother writers of the short story is the leisure to depict the changes their major characters undergo. A simplistic but effective formula for a novel is: Something happens – somebody changes. George Pelecanos gets that abundantly right in “The Night Gardener” (Little Brown). A number of things happen. Fair enough; a number of things should happen in a novel of detection and suspense. To Pelecanos’s credit, the events are sadly plausible. To his even greater credit, the changes undergone by the three major characters (and a number of the minor ones) are even more plausible. These changes eventually trump the plot, building a dramatic inertia that moves us beyond the expectations of an intriguing crime-related puzzle and a whodunit ending to a place where we have been given a window through which we can discern a secular force of redemption available to those who would pursue it.

We begin in 1985 at a crime scene “in the low 30s around E, on the edge of Fort Dupont Park, in a neighborhood known as Greenway” in Southeast D.C. The senior detective is down on one knee, next to a corpse.

Cook surmised that she had been undressed and re-dressed

after her murder, and her body had been moved and dumped here.

He had a sick feeling in his gut and also, he realized with some

degree of guilt, a quickening in his pulse that suggested, if not

excitement, then engagement. An ID on the body would confirm it, but Cook

suspected that this one was like the others. She was one of them.

She was a victim of a killer dubbed “The Night Gardener” by the police.

In no way does it spoil the multifarious effect of story to reveal that Cook has retired with an extraordinary solve rate – but not this 1985 case, which has eaten at him for more than 20 years. Now, in present time, the body of a teenager is discovered, and it quickly becomes apparent that he was the friend of Diego, the son of one of the two other principal cops. Pelecanos’s sense of timing and detail is impeccable, drawing us through this narrative in accelerating curiosity at the way change will be affected on the individuals who walk these pages.

Until Now

The disappointment inherent in Dennis Lehane’s most recent novel, “Shutter Island,” was quickly set aside by the appearance of the short story, “Until Gwen,” in The Atlantic Monthly. Anyone who could write that story should be pardoned for “Shutter Island.”

“Until Gwen” was later chosen for inclusion in “The Best Short Stories of 2005”; it also appears in “Coronado” (Morrow), which is a collection of stories, one of which is expanded into a play.

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen

Dodge Neon with an eight ball in the glove compartment

and a hooker named Mandy in the backseat. Two minutes

into the ride, the [prison] still hanging tilted in the rearview,

Mandy tells you that she only hooks part time.

Thus begins a lethal battle between the father and son; it is emblematic of the other stories in this collection, all of them about individuals who are caught, emotionally and physically, in the unrelenting places of life, looking for a way – any way – out.

The throughline of “Gone Down to Corpus,” if given in outline form, would turn off a majority of readers. A group of recent high school graduates in Texas, seeking revenge on a classmate for having dropped a pass in a championship football game, does not sound particularly inviting, but in Lehane’s deftness and understanding, it is transformed to a place where it actually trumps the now classic British film, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.”

Lehane has moved much of the action from the specifics of the Boston suburbs of his better-known work, edging into undifferentiated locales or trimming down on the details of setting. Much as “Until Gwen” resonates and the other stories intrigue, “Coronado” demonstrates more than anything else that this author has a significant understanding of the underprivileged, the needy, and the driven, and that even on off days, he has a superior sense of what makes dialogue memorable.