Strange Ways

A thriller which asks some important questions about race.

"Right As Rain" is one of countless books written about the never-ending conflict between whites and blacks and life on the mean streets of Washington, D.C. Yet, it is different. Surprisingly, the book has a human touch to it, when it could well have lost itself in gunfights, drugs, death, sex and gore, all the usual ingredients for a novel like this one.

Derek Strange is black, successful and the unlikely protagonist of this story. His job as a private investigator leads him to be hired to investigate a police shooting, in which the other main character, Terry Quinn, played a major role. For different reasons, this particular investigation grows to be more and more important to each man. For Quinn, specifically, it is his last chance to absolve his conscience and understand thoroughly the reasons behind his actions on the one fateful night when his life changed forever. But neither can foresee that they are mere pawns in a larger, deadlier game, where one has to pay a price for being right.

The characters are, well, human. That’s what makes the difference. Pelecanos has explored the age-old clichés of racial bias and discrimination in a sensitive way, giving his characters, especially the main protagonists, various facets and layers. There is no hero in this story - everyone has a dark side. Surprisingly introspective in parts, the book manages to leave you thinking about whether a man can really be killed in the present day, in a developed society, by an apparent "upholder of the law", because of the colour of his skin. Not a comfortable question, as most would agree.

The novel has pretty much everything that it needs: a plot involving the usual slick weapons, the cocaine addicts, the too-evil-to-be-real drug pushers, the random women thrown in for good measure and obviously, the upright ex-cops. However, being fast paced and having that added human touch, in addition to dealing with a controversial subject like the still-extant, thinly-veiled racial bias in the modern world helps raise the book from the ranks of just another crime thriller to one that’s worth reading.

This article was first published on 10 Dec 2001.