Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Night Gardener.
Author George Pelecanos’ latest novel is attention-grabbing from the very beginning. His style of writing takes the reader directly into the lives of the characters, laying bare the characters’ motives, feelings, thoughts and weaknesses, each intricate detail pulling the reader deeper into the novel. From middle-class neighborhoods to the seedy criminal underbelly of Washington, D.C., The Night Gardener is an entertaining thriller as well as thought-provoking character study.
The year is 1985, and Sergeant T.C. Cook, one of D.C.’s best homicide detectives, is standing over the body of the Night Gardener’s third victim, a young black girl whose body is found in a community garden, a bullet to the brain. Like the two murders before, the body has been cleaned, dressed in clean clothes and moved to the garden where it is later discovered. The girl’s first name, like that of the other two victims, is a palindrome, spelled the same backward and forward.
Standing in the sidelines, two young second-year police officers, Dan Holiday and Gus Ramone, are at the site, keeping people away from the crime scene. The two officers could not be any more different. Ramone is strictly by the book and a realist while Holiday, the dreamer, does not see anything wrong with bending the rules if it means reaching the desired outcome.
The three murders committed by the Night Gardener go unsolved for the next twenty years as the book fast-forwards to 2005, when a young black boy is shot to death, his body found lying in a garden. The similarities between the killings in 1985 and the most recent one are too close to be ignored.
Now a family man, Gus Ramone wants nothing more than to raise his children right in a society that is full of hypocrisy and prejudice, a theme Pelecanos smoothly interweaves throughout the novel. The murder of the boy cuts close to home for homicide detective Ramone. His own son was at one time a good friend of the murder victim, a reality that shakes up their world. Although not assigned as primary of the case, Ramone is determined to uncover the identity of the killer whom he believes may be linked to the murders two decades ago.
Two others have made the connection between the recent murder and the ones in 1985. T.C. Cook, now retired and trying to make the best out of his life after suffering a terrible stroke, is haunted by the Palindrome Murders, the one big case he was not able to solve during his time on the force. Dan Holiday, who is drinking his life away after having left the force under suspicious circumstances, cannot seem to shed his “police” skin completely. When he discovers the boy’s body in the park, he knows what must be done. The two men find companionship as they hope for one last shot at reliving their glory days and attempt to recapture their dreams. Pelecanos captures their desperation and determination in a gut-wrenching way.
By way of balance, Pelecanos also takes the reader into the life and mind of an up-and-coming criminal whose sole desire is to make a name for himself. Romeo Brock is a cold and ruthless man. His cousin, a veteran criminal named Conrad Gaskins, only wants to turn his life around. However, a promise he made to his aunt to try and look after Brock is leading him back into the life he would sooner forget. The contrast between the two characters offers a unique perspective as their story unfolds.
Throughout the novel, there are two distinct story lines running parallel that never quite gel. I came away from the novel still wondering what the connection was. Although a thriller in its own right, The Night Gardener is much more about the characters, the consequences of their actions and the choices they make. George Pelecanos puts the reader into the time and place of the novel, the writing style matching the way the characters think and talk, creating a realistic and intriguing story that is sure to entertain.