The Night Gardener


George Pelecanos


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

April 16, 2007

was surprised at how ordinary this book was. The Night Gardener received a lot of hype when it was published - acclaim such as "Pelecanos proves a genre mystery can be good enough to be considered literature". "Page turner and a character driven novel". "Critics agree that Pelecanos transcends the crime-novel genre". With gushing platitudes like that, I expected a lot more than this routine police-procedural tale; I didn't find the Night Gardener to be "heart-in-throat-gripping until the very end". Don't get me wrong, it isn't a bad book, but it is nothing special either.

The prologue of book introduces us to Ramone and Holiday, two young cops standing guard at a crime scene of the Palidrome killer. This murdered youth is the third victim of the killer. All of the victims have first names that are spelled the same forwards and backwards - Otto, Eve and Ava. The lead detective on the case is T.C. Cook, he is obsessed with catching the killer. But Cook does not succeed, the serial killer remains free. Which is odd, because the criminal would have to get to know a minor pretty well to know that their first name was a palidrome. Also, the lack of struggle at the crime scenes seem to indicate the victims knew their killer, so the pool of suspects should be pretty small- how many guys could Eve, Ava and Otto have known? The Palidrome Killer didn't sound plausible to me.

Twenty years after the prologue, T.C. Cook has retired as a detective from the police force. Holiday no longer is cop, Holiday is now self employed with his own limousine driving service. Ramone remains on the force, and now is a detective himself. One night, after sleeping in his car, Holiday wakes up and strolls over to a vacant lot to take a leak, and (big coincidence) he discovers the body of a teenage boy. Has the Palidrome killer struck again? Holiday makes an anoymous phone call to the police tip line, but Ramone is assigned to the case, and he recognizes the voice of his police partner from 20 years ago. The victim is named Asa, and he is a companion of Ramone's teenage son.

Ramone and Holiday renew their acquaintance (they didn't part as friends, since Ramone led the investigation that caused Holiday to resign from the police force) to gather clues. Holiday finds T.C. Cook, and tries to discover what the old detective knew from the case.

My problem with this book is that Ramone and Holiday don't get emotionally involved in this case. Pelecanos shows our heroes investigating, but it seems like mild curiosity (on Holiday's part) or "just doing my job" attitude (on Ramone's part) is what drives them. Indeed, a large part of the Ramone's time is spent on the prejudice his son is encountering at the upscale high school he attends. Ramone married a black woman; their biracial son is taking classes at a school in wealthier part of town. Ramone displays much more passion with respect to the injustice his son faces, rather than toward the murder of Asa.

Pelecanos portrayal of the attitudes of Ramone and Holiday is probably accurate, I assume police detectives don't get emotionally involved in their homicide cases, but the result is a flat novel that fails to involve the reader. Why should we care about the death of Asa if none of the characters in the care? T.C. Cook is driven to find the Palidrome killer, his character makes compelling reading, but the focus of the book isn't on him. The dramatic climax of the story doesn't involve any of our heroes. It turns out that the details of the death of Asa was a huge coincidence with respect to the Palidrome Killer. The plotting isn't that great, nor was I that impressed with the character building done by Pelecanos (why not let us read some excerpts from Asa's journal, to give the book some poignancy?

This story is okay, but it doesn't live up to the hype. Keep your expections lower, and the book won't disappoint you.