The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos

2006. 372 pages. Hardcover.

From: The public library

For the challenge: Thriller and Suspense Challenge

In a nutshell:

In 1985, a string of three murders in D.C. indicate the work of a serial killer.  The victims are all children and they become known as the Palindrome Murders, as all the victims’ names are palindromes. The murders are never solved.  In the present-day, a teenager is murdered in a manner that recalls the Palindrome Murders.  Some wonder if it’s the same killer resurfacing again.


This is the first book that I’ve read by George Pelecanos, though I’ve seen the first season of HBO’s The Wire, where he was one of the writers.  It was not the author’s television credentials that drew me to The Night Gardener, however, but rather the fact that it is a non-political D.C-based thriller.

Pelecanos clearly knows the area well, much more than I do.  I live in the Maryland suburbs and my knowledge of the District proper is more limited.  So at first, I was impatient with Pelecanos’ level of setting detail.  It almost seemed that he wanted the reader to plot out character movements on a map.  Here’s a random sample:

Conrad Gaskins came out of a clinic located beside a church off Minnesota Avenue and Naylor Road, in Randle Highlands, Southeast . . . He had been up since 5:00 a.m., when he had risen and walked over to the shape-up spot on Central Avenue in Seat Pleasant, Maryland.

To be fair, Pelecanos does not just name-check street names and locations.  He describes the type of neighborhood it is, whether it’s a place that police ignore, or a place that is getting gentrified, and so on, so that you get a picture of the D.C. environs. Furthermore, that level of street-name detail came to be valued by me when Pelecanos started describing extremely familiar places in the Maryland suburbs.  One of the characters lived less than five minutes from an apartment in Greenbelt where I lived for a year.  That was fun.

So that’s my requisite ramble about setting.  The Night Gardener follows a small group of characters, most of them police.  The main character is Gus Ramone, who was a cop when the Palindrome Murders occurred.  In the present-day he works as a detective for the Violent Crimes Division of the Metropolitan Police.  I loved that Ramone was a family man and how Pelecanos showed Ramone balancing his work and family life.  It’s refreshing as usually police detectives in thrillers are unlucky in their personal lives.

Indeed, overall, The Night Gardener has fleshed-out characters.   I liked how Pelecanos used different characters to display the range of approaches toward police work.  In addition to Ramone, there is a retired police detective who gets reinvigorated by the new case’s similarity to the serial killer case which still haunts him.  There are Ramone’s fellow detectives, a few who are stand-up true partners, and some that are not quite up to par.

More than the solid characterization, the descriptions of police work feel grounded and credible.  This is a book that was engaging throughout, but I wouldn’t call it a page-turner.  There is a definite climax to the story, but it’s not predictable.  What would be red herrings in another mystery are actually used as full story arcs in their own right.  They may not relate to the teenager’s murder, but that does not mean that they aren’t worth reading about.

Based on my enjoyment of The Night Gardener, I would definitely read more by this author.


Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers

4 responses to “The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos

  1. That’s interesting that he fleshes out what would be red herrings to other authors- definitely sounds good, and like an author who knows what he’s doing. I think I would get frustrated with the mapping of D.C., though, but it’s great to see a good nonpolitical thriller set there!

    • Yeah, I really liked that aspect because when it turns out that a suspect is cleared of the crime, what made that suspect suspicious is still a story in itself.

      And a repeated hurrah for the non-political nature of the book. D.C. is more than just the politics!

  2. JoV

    Thanks for visiting my Library Loot.

    Heard so much great things about George Pelecanos, being good looking is just an added plus! I’ll have to look up George Pelecanos…. 🙂

    • When I was looking up information about The Night Gardener, I ran across a newspaper feature on Pelecanos that I want to go back and read in full, as it was pretty interesting about how he grew up in the area and how he got involved in The Wire.

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