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Blood and vengeance: All in a day’s work

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Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review.

In Stephen Frey’s “The Chairman,” 36-year-old Christian Gillette, a managing partner of a powerful Manhattan private equity firm, is elected chairman of Everest Capital after the firm’s founder is found dead, probably murdered. Within a few pages, it looks as if Gillette is slated for a similar fate. Through 300 pages of narrow squeaks, hidden enemies lurk, waiting to strike and then to strike again. But the bold new chief executive fends off half a dozen deadly aggressions, uncovers a hive of perfidious duplicity within Everest and allied firms, foils the murderous maneuvers and gets back to his main occupation: making money.

Frey, who has spent his life in banking and brokerage, delights in laying out every aspect of equity and finance -- especially hornswoggling modi operandi that, around Everest, include more preemptive strikes than George W. Bush could dream of. Since money people go for the jugular, it’s all quite bloody and a lot of fun. There’s a lot of loot as well. Millions eddy, billions billow around the desks of Everest partners and rival executives. Few narratives as intricate, as tortuous, as snarled, make such good reading. But then, treachery has always provided better copy than probity, and descriptions of money changing hands, changing lives (or abbreviating the latter) often prove more exciting than sex.

The archangel Gabriel’s name, in Hebrew, means “man of God.” In Daniel Silva’s “Prince of Fire,” Gabriel Allon, restorer of old paintings and inflictor of rough justice, becomes a warrior -- not just for God but also for Israel’s secret service and to take his own revenge on Arab terrorists who stripped him of his family members when they blew them to shreds. The terrorists, in turn, spread carnage to manifest festering resentments of their own. No apocalyptic religiosity for this lot, but fetid political fervor. In sum, two peoples warring over a single land, extending the mayhem they wreak from the Holy Land to Muslim-frequented Europe and beyond.

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Within this brackish, blood-gorged arena where death constantly simmers in the background, a series of particularly gruesome outrages warns of more to come. Preemptive action is called for. Gabriel and his counter-terrorist squad are mobilized to identify the artful dodger who strikes, eludes pursuit and hides until the next foray. But wet work is more complicated and more hazardous than run-of-the-mill detection.

While Gabriel pursues his murderous quarry, the wily nihilist stalks him in his turn. This mutual pursuit takes hero, antihero and their hangers-on through a terrorist’s tour of tempting targets -- Rome, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Marseille, Paris -- until one party wins. The Jewish case is put eloquently, the Arab one more sotto voce. You can take your pick. But action speeds implacably on. Silva’s intricate plot hurtles along; the goriness never relents.

“Cold Service,” the title of Robert B. Parker’s latest, refers to revenge, said to be a dish best served cold. Hot, cold or lukewarm, revenge is urgently called for, because Spenser’s buddy Hawk has been shot in the back and seriously injured by Ukrainian mobsters who crept into our country yearning to breathe free at someone else’s expense. Now the thugs and those behind their deviltries have to be punished. Not by agencies of the Law, which are as capricious as the Law itself, but by Hawk, once he recovers, aided and abetted by Spenser and the old gang. That alone will satisfy our friends, if not the lawbooks.

Vengeance is mine, sayeth someone or other. Vengeance is illegal, sayeth the Law: Society exacts it in hygienic, compassionate, politically correct ways. But Hawk is not convinced that murderous and greedy perps will be brought to book before they perp some more. In Hawk’s script, ruthless retribution for ruthless crimes is laconic and swift. Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan intellectual, described revenge as “a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought the law to weed it out.” But Bacon was a corrupt casuist, and his thoughts do not impress Hawk. Nor Spenser either. Yet Spenser’s resolve is tested by Susan, his longtime ladylove, and their exchanges color Bacon’s argument.

Scragging Ukrainians and their allies may satisfy, but so do many trivial indulgences liable to raise our cholesterol level. Official justice, on the other hand, just like the wild variety, veers according to money, power, lies, deceptions and self-deceptions. Rancor reflects no higher moral imperative than legal or prudential prescriptions. Pending resolution of portentous questions, Spenser, Hawk and Susan will handle their quandaries deftly. Their high-velocity patter does not age. Violence is concise, alcoholic intake moderate, wrangling warmed by wit and smoothed by stimulants. Proof that Parker is near the top of his form, which is nothing to sneeze at.

D.C. is sometimes known as Dodge City. George Pelecanos prefers to call it “Drama City,” because, like all good theater, it is soaked in conflict and ebullient with emotion. “Melodrama City” might be more to the point, but what matters is that Pelecanos is the foremost chronicler of our urban wastelands. His prose serves up vivid versions of them that we won’t find in tourist guides: drink, drugs, slaughter, random callousness, casual kindness, tuna sandwiches, sounds that currently pass for music and the rest. Is this the banality of evil? Rather the banality of everyday life and the tug of war between tenacity and despair.

In this, the 13th of his ongoing reports about the seedier, needier aspects of contemporary experience, Pelecanos’ iconic figures are Lorenzo Brown -- an ex-convict liberated after eight years in prison, who works for the Humane Society, adopts a dog and scrupulously cleans up after it -- and Rachel Lopez, a young, stern, kindly and alcoholic parole officer who keeps a weather eye on her parolees, including Lorenzo.

The rather hazy plot turns on a tiff between two minor drug lords that erupts when an underling boots off a kid retailing drugs from a street corner. The underling mistakenly thinks the kid is trespassing on his gang’s territory. Out of this dumb mistake a stream of violence flows, to engulf the neighborhood and culminate in a bloodbath. Rachel, Lorenzo, their friends, their associates and their pets thread their way through a jagged obstacle course of contention, past warring gangs and commonplace carnage, disconcerting hazards and turgid pitfalls, to emerge from a corpse-strewn, blood-spattered finale scathed but not hopeless. There’s always work to do. *


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