Book Review : Peter Plate - Angels of Catastrophe (2011)
Angels of Catastrophe is the last book in Peter Plate's Mission District Quartet, and like the quintessential cinematic last minute heroic act or perfect shot from ten feet behind the three-point line, it closes the quartet with an unforgettable bang. While the three preceding novels range from great to good, this one crosses into superb territory and delivers the hardest hits, the sharpest, most believable dialogue, and the most brilliant descriptions of the streets in which the narrative takes place.
A policeman has been shot on a crowded street in San Francisco. The cops bring in Ricky Durrutti for questioning. Ricky is a petty criminal and didn't shoot the man, but he has something to do with the gun the gun that took his life. Unfortunately, the man he thinks might be responsible is nowhere to be found, and he blamed the murder on a dead man before disappearing. To get the cops off his back, Ricky starts his own investigation into the murder, but no one is talking and everyone has an agenda. He soon realizes there's a cover-up and that everyone he talks to knows a little more than what they tell him. Desperate for answers, Ricky is thrown into a perennial state of tension and is forced to deal with dishonest street hustlers, drug addicts, the cops, and fellow petty criminals. Between his growing number of enemies, lack of answers, the added stress of a failed relationship, a jealous boyfriend now out to get him, and the growing pressure from the law, Ricky becomes a haunted man and the streets turn into a violent, dangerous background for his anguished quest for information.
Every novel in the Mission Quartet is about people from and on the wrong side of the tracks, and Angels of Catastrophe is no different. Populated by a shattered, deeply flawed individuals trying to survive and outsmart one another, this narrative is, like those that precede it, a testament to Plate's observational skills and first-hand experience with street living. From religious fanatics and vengeful criminals to prostitutes and junkies, the world in which this story takes place is mean, dirty, and as real as the tough streets of San Francisco. These characters know things, they possess a different outlook in life, and the author shares that with readers here with a clarity seldom achieved by crime writers:
"Most Americans pay taxes, vote, think of death as something they can take or leave. Lowlife in the street are another story. They know something the citizens don't—every dollar bill is marked, every killing has a witness, and nobody gets away with anything."
After reading four Peter Plate novels in a row, his style becomes apparent. Plate dislikes traditional arcs and favors a chaotic approach to storytelling. At times it seems the narrative has become lost inside itself, but that's only because Plate's writing follows the natural (dis)order of life in the streets. People come and go, violence erupts, lies are told, vendettas become the epicenter of relationships, and the streets are full of wretched lives carving out an existence and doing everything in their power to survive another day. Angels of Catastrophe brings these elements to the page with more clarity than the first three novels, and Plate takes his characters to new levels of credibility and depth with some of the most honest, crackling dialogue in crime fiction.
One of the main elements of cohesion in the Mission Quartet is its geography, which even gives the quartet its name. In this last entry, Plate once again offers a physical/psychological map of the area and delivers the most poetic and gritty descriptions of the four novels:
"Mission street at dawn was a panorama of homeless men foraging through garbage dumpsters near Leed's Shoe Store. The Tower Theater's marquee, green and damp with pigeon shit, was rust-gold in the rising sun. Winos slumbered on flattened cardboard boxes in the doors of the Wells Fargo Bank. Wild parrots chirped as they dive-bombed the telephone lines over Si Tashjian's Flower Shop. The sound of breaking glass and drunken laughter poured from The Sunset Bar onto the sidewalk through a pair of dutch doors."
Angels of Catastrophe is the crowning jewel in the Mission District Quartet, and that's saying a lot. Ripe with brutality and desperation, the Ricky's story is just another tale of life in the streets and the result of existing outside the law as the only means to survive. Emotionally gritty and very descriptive, this novel brings to the forefront everything Plate does well, and what he does well more than makes up for some of the weakest elements of his style. If you haven't read the Mission District Quartet, I strongly suggest fixing that.