The second novel featuring Spero Lucas, a young Iraq vet working as a PI in Washington DC but with a sideline in finding lost items – the kind of items the owners can’t go to the police about. This time Spero is trying to find a painting belonging to a sexy young woman who was scammed out of it by a super-smooth con artist, part of a team of ruthless thugs. Spero tracks the painting down but the woman is brutally attacked to warn him off. Spero goes on the attack and takes the gang out one by one in their isolated house in the woods – prompting the question: have his experiences in Iraq turned him into an amoral killer no better than the crooks he’s up against? It’s this question that gives the book its dark edge, and moral ambiguity, with a hero we’re not quite sure we should like.

I am an avid fan of  George Pelecanos and always look forward to this time of the year which holds the promise of a new book from him, so was as keen as mustard to read this follow-up to The Cut featuring ex-soldier and private investigator Spero Lucas. Unfortunately, The Double didn’t quite live up to my expectations, comprising mostly of sex, cycling, a bit of canoeing, sex, a murder investigation, sex and a missing painting, but here are my thoughts…

There can be no argument that Lucas is a wonderful creation being a true man’s man and combining a mix of moral ambiguity, showing moments of charm and empathy underscored by a propensity for violence and womanising. The tables are turned nicely in this one with Lucas being called upon for his prowess in the bedroom by a sexually voracious married woman (a neat re-working of the McNulty/D’Agostino storyline from The Wire) but despite his growing infatuation discovers that there is little else to this relationship. Hence, a large part of the book is devoted to this mismatched physical relationship, while Lucas struggles with matters of the heart (or in his case- the trouser department) and endeavours to put his mind to what he should actually be doing. The central plot is also somewhat undone by the focus on Lucas’ other physical activities with his seemingly endless scenic cycle trips, where each location is dutifully pointed out and described in some detail, that quickly lost my interest, as  I was more keen to return to his tracking down of the bad men doing bad things. Where the book got back on form for me, was seeing Lucas in his tough guy role, with the references to both his former soldiering career and the interaction between him and his other ex-military cohorts, as the race to track down a nasty, violent group of con-artists got into full swing. Additionally, Pelecanos is great on the socio-political side of his plotting, and the observations he makes on the US involvement abroad and the social decline of certain areas of Washington DC outside the corridors of power is as sharp and focused as usual. Lucas is commissioned to investigate a possible miscarriage of justice, seeking to try and prove a man innocent of a murder, but to me this plotline was slightly lost and unbalanced within the central narrative, as his other mission to recover a stolen painting from an emotionally unstable woman took precedence in the story. I would have liked the book to have been concerned with one or the other, rather than producing a weakness to both strands in a relatively slim book so in short a rather mixed affair all round.

The book is peppered throughout with Pelecanos’ trademark cultural references to music, films and books and I liked the quote that reading should comprise of “ a good story with clean, efficient writing, a plot involving a problem to be solved or surmounted, and everyday characters the reader could relate to”. Although The Double does not quite fit this manifesto on some levels for this reader, it was nevertheless good to see the return of the entertaining Spero Lucas in a generally engaging, though slightly patchy read, from one of my favourite American crime authors.

George Pelecanos is an independent film producer, an essayist, the recipient of numerous international writing awards, a producer and an EMMY-nominated writer on the HBO hit series THE WIRE. He is the author of a bestselling series of crime novels set in and around Washington, D.C: www.hachettebookgroup.com/features/georgepelecanos/

(With thanks to Orion for the ARC)

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