If you like James Ellroy and Ed Bunker you have to read The Big Blowdown by George P. Pelecanos.
This emotional crime saga charts the relationship of two kids growing up on the mean streets of Washington D.C. in the 1930s. Pete Karras and Joey Recevo come from different ethnic backgrounds-Karras is Greek and Recevo is Italian-but despite racial tensions they manage to maintain a strong friendship through World War Two. After the war, they both work strong-arming for an Italian-run protection racket in D.C. When the boss demands that they lean hard on a Greek store owner there is suspicion that Karras is going soft on one of his own. Recevo is forced to make a decision between loyalty to his friend and loyalty to the Italian mob.
Karras and Recevo are exceptionally vivid characters and the mood of post-war D.C. is brilliantly captured by the pitch-perfect dialogue and great sense of place. The book is scattered with film references (Pelecanos is also a movie producer) and it is impossible to read this book without imagining it on the big screen, shot in black and white. Karras, who cheats on his wife for years with a mistress, is certainly a flawed hero, but thanks to Pelecanos’ skilled writing and engaging depiction of Karras’ complex moral dilemma, we root for him nevertheless.
A well-developed subplot in the novel concerns Mike Florek, a naïve kid from rural Pennsylvania, and his search for his sister Lola who has fallen into a life of drugs and prostitution. This is where the novel becomes most reminisent of Ellroy as Karras seeks redemption for his sins by aiding in Florek’s search.
In addition to being a constantly engaging character study of morally torn minds, The Big Blowdown has several finely written violent set pieces which are opportunities for Karras and Recevo to face off.
The intense passion of this fine novel will remain with readers for a very long time. Get ready to wipe the sweat off of your brow.
Reviewed by Jason Starr