Review: The Martini Shot by George Pelecanos

Excellent recipe: Mix one part novella with seven parts short story. Delicious outcome

Reading time: 2 ½ minutes –

It’s telling in all the wrong ways for me as a writer that the cover of Pelecanos’ book says it’s written by the “award-winning writer/producer of THE WIRE.” Pelecanos, to be sure, has awards on his mantel for his work on TV. But he’s also got awards for his novels.

Forget about all that, however, when you open his latest. The Martini Shot is actually amartini novella. He gives you seven appetizers before you reach the entree. The title track is good enough to skip all those starters, but you’d miss some real gems, so resist the temptation.

String Music was my favorite of the opening courses. Pelecanos offers up two main characters: young Tonio Harris who impulsively insults a dangerous enemy in a street basketball game, and Sergeant Peters who struggles equally hard to protect the kid. They’re both smart enough to give each other enough room. Pelecanos is smart enough to deftly steer the reader through this tasty story.

It would be impossible not to mention Miss Mary’s Room, a story so rich and poignant that you won’t be able to skip ahead to the next one in sequence (Plastic Paddy) for a good long while because it’ll take you so long to digest what happens. I won’t give it away here, but I still think about the senselessness and reality that happens in this story more than a week removed from reading it.

Being a lover of great lines, even if not the opening line, the first entry sates my appetite. Called The Confidential Informant, the hard-luck title character plans to strike it rich by outing a murderer and gives us this line when describing his patch of Washington DC: “The businesses along here were like a roll call of my personal failures.” Who doesn’t pull for this kid? I’d spend more time on all seven shorts, but the feature dish is too delicious.

The Martini Shot is a film industry term for the last shot of the night. After this shot, the workday ends and the nightlife begins. Hence, the next shot will be coming out of a glass.

You’ll be forgiven if you see a little of Pelecanos in this story, set against the backdrop of a cable TV show. It’s in Louisiana; nowhere near DC where The Wire takes place. Also, it doesn’t sound like must-see TV. Spoiler alert: it gets canceled before the end of the story. On the other hand, it makes for a great story. And since it’s Pelecanos, someone gets murdered. Victor Ohanion, the show’s writer posits that if he can write gritty crime stuff he can solve some gritty crime stuff as well. We get ringside seats.

One nice writing ploy I happened to love: Pelecanos brilliantly combines the story with the TV show by giving us dialogue on a few occasions dressed up as Ohanion would write the script for his show. He even gets to say to a cop, “he has a rap sheet as long as my arm.” Pelecanos isn’t the first to try the technique, but as you’d expect from a guy who’s written extensively in both forms – he masters it from the first stage direction.

You’ll fall in love with the losers and winners – mostly the losers – throughout this entire collection. Many of the short stories have appeared elsewhere prior to this book, which is nothing new in publishing, but they’re a great read for a decent commute and you’ll love settling in for a long haul when you arrive at the main course of The Martini Shot.

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