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Book Reviews Crime and punishment: Two short-story collections converge on a theme

George Pelecanos’s characters in his collection of short stories, The Martini Shot, are constantly facing their essential selves at moments of sudden violence.

Andrew Councill

The Martini Shot by George Pelecanos, Little, Brown, 295 pages, $28

Cover Before Striking by Priscila Uppal, Dundurn, 228 pages, $19.99

In The Lonely Voice, his classic study of short fiction, Frank O'Connor writes that "Americans have handled the short story so wonderfully that one can say that it is a national art form." One reason for this, O'Connor suggests, is that short stories deal with the plight of outsiders, something American writers display a particular affinity for. "That peculiar American sweetness toward the stranger – which exists side by side with American brutality toward everyone – is the sweetness of people whose own ancestors have been astray in an unfamiliar society and understand that a familiar society is the exception rather than the rule."

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O'Connor's assessment seems to apply well to the work of George Pelecanos, whose fictional oeuvre focuses largely on displaced ethnic groups – black people, most especially – in Washington. So accurate is O'Connor's comment, in fact, that it may come as a surprise to note that although The Martini Shot is Pelecanos's 20th book, it is his first collection of short fiction. Of course, Pelecanos is not coming to the form cold: Many of the stories in The Martini Shot have appeared in previous anthologies, the earliest of them as far back as 1996.

That story, When You're Hungry, is itself something of an outlier for Pelecanos, in that it takes place far away from the underbelly of the U.S. capital. The story involves John Moreno, who works as an investigator for a Miami-based insurance company. One of the company's clients, who supposedly died at sea, has been spotted – apparently alive and well – in Brazil. The company has already sent one man to investigate; when he dies in what appears to be a booze-filled accident, Moreno is recruited to travel to the Brazilian city of Recife and finish the job.

Moreno typifies O'Connor's idea of the American "stranger" whose forebears "have been astray in an unfamiliar society." The investigator's real name is Juan, and he is the son of Mexican migrants. Pelecanos writes that, after leaving his family to pursue an education in New England, Moreno "quickly learned the value of lineage and presentation" – shorthand for the kind of pervasive racism that keeps many of the author's characters subservient to wealthy white society. When You're Hungry is an exemplar of what Pelecanos is best at: twisting plots that play on familiar genre tropes, street-level dialogue and flashes of startling violence.

The violence in Pelecanos's work serves the same function it does in the work of another story writer named O'Connor – Flannery, who said that "the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality." Pelecanos's characters are constantly facing their essential selves at moments of sudden violence: the inner-city black man who becomes a police informant as a means of earning his father's respect; the young drug dealer who gets nicked and must face the possibility that his friend might roll over on him and his buddies; the Greek immigrant in the 1930s who squares off against a Pinkerton man looking to stamp out labour unrest at the restaurant where the protagonist is employed.

Pelecanos is arguably best known for his work as a writer and producer on the HBO series The Wire and Treme, so it is somewhat ironic that the novella that lends the collection its title is the weakest entry in the bunch. Focusing on the cast and crew of a television cop show called Tanner's Team, the story highlights the particular dangers inherent in the standard advice to "write what you know." Large swaths of the narrative focus on the minutiae of life on a film set: who sits with whom at lunch, how a day's shot list is determined, the frustrations in dealing with a temperamental star. While all of this feels absolutely authentic, it is much less potent than the shorter, more streamlined pieces about would-be gangsters and disaffected youth trying to make their way in a country that has stacked all its cards against them.

Pelecanos's preferred mode is to work within the genre conventions of the crime story; this might make Priscila Uppal seem an odd person to pair him with, and while it is true that the two display completely divergent approaches, voices and concerns, there are nevertheless similarities. Uppal actually includes a couple of idiosyncratic takes on crime stories in Cover Before Striking, her debut collection, though neither feels as immersive as Pelecanos's tales. Sleepwalking is the story of a woman named Olivia, whose adulterous affair has fatal consequences. The story follows a familiar trajectory out of James M. Cain; what makes it interesting is that the woman is placed at the centre, and the whole thing is told from the point of view of her feet. This authorial contrivance serves to emphasize the objectification of the woman at the heart of the story, literally reducing her to a set of body parts. It is an intriguing, if not entirely satisfying, approach to the material.

More traditional is Blind Spot, in which a woman stalks her two-timing husband through the streets of Toronto. A failed pick-up in a downtown bar and an excursion to the Bay to shop for a wig are both effective, though the woman's insistence on referring to her cheating husband by a series of insulting monikers – the Pig, the Brute, the Bottom Feeder, the Back Stabber – wears thin quickly.

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Other ventures into genre territory are more effective, including Mycosis, a creepy tale about a woman who confines herself to her apartment where she becomes obsessed with growing and observing various kinds of mould and fungus. Uppal creates a strong sense of claustrophobic dread as she details her protagonist's increasingly unhinged psyche. And Vertigo, about an Olympic-calibre diver suffering the titular disease who submits to a bizarre scientific experiment, benefits from the author's knowledge of, and affinity for, the milieu of organized sports (Uppal was the poet-in-residence at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver). Vertigo is a more effective example than The Martini Shot of the "write what you know" principle, largely because Uppal uses her background knowledge as a springboard for her story, rather than making it the story's focus.

Pelecanos restricts his formal canvas to the crime genre, whereas Uppal is much more profligate, preferring to range among different styles and approaches. Relatively straightforward stories such as The Boy Next Door and Wind Chimes abut more experimental entries such as the title story, about a pyromaniac, which uses negative space as a visual means of conveying the erasure that accompanies things getting burned up in a fire. If not all the stories are equally successful, this does not detract from the ambition that keeps the author striking out in different directions. As a collection, The Martini Shot feels familiar, like the welcome company of old friends. Cover Before Striking, by contrast, is startlingly heterodox, each entry an exploration of new, and largely uncharted, territory.

Steven W. Beattie is reviews editor at Quill & Quire, and will be writing about short stories each month in The Globe and Mail.

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