Book Review : Peter Plate - Police and Thieves (2002)
Order POLICE AND THIEVES here
After reading the first two novels in Peter Plate’s classic Mission Quartet, One Foot Off the Gutter and Snitch Factory, I was curious to see where he went next. The first book was a gritty street narrative and the second an unflinching look at the world of food stamps. With Police and Thieves, the third book, Plate went back to the streets, back to drugs, and back to the wonderfully descriptive language and inescapable atmosphere of agitated stagnation that he offered in One Foot Off the Gutter. Then he went a bit further.
Doojie, the narrator of Police and Thieves, is a young, poor, small-time dope dealer who lives in a garage behind a laundromat with his two partners in crime, Eichmann and Bobo. The trio tries to make a living on the streets while hiding from the garage’s owner, who wants them to pay rent or get out. Their weed is not the best, but their prices are reasonable and business is always happening in the Mission District. Then everything changes. It starts when Doojie witnesses a cop, a known local musclehead with an attitude problem, kill an unarmed man. From then on, between a surprise pregnancy, an angry cop looking to silence Doojie forever, growing tension between the three friends, too many drug deals gone wrong that put them in hot water, and the psychological wear and tear day to day of street hustling, the three men get to that proverbial point in which things either change or someone will suffer irreparable damage.
Describing the streets, its residents, and its dramas is what Plate does best, and he shines in all regards here. Doojie has a complicated past and a richly developed cultural identity, but he also struggles to find his place in the world. He feels like he’s going nowhere fast and that he’s constantly being set up. On top of that, Flaherty, the cop, is a violent, gun-wielding ghost that can appear at any place and time, and that has Doojie worried. This constant state of anxiety forces the reader to keep turning pages in order to learn what comes next. While this element would be enough to make this a recommended novel, Plate balances the emotional strain with a heavy dose of action and the kind of hyperviolent behavior that can only be found in the meanest streets:
Before I made up my mind, the narcs tackled me—Flaherty plowed into me with the head-butt on the chin. He hit me upside the nose with both fists, then made my ears ring with a kick in the nuts that dropped me to the pavement. Devastated, I curled up on the cold cement and gazed at the inky sky. No stars were up there, nothing but a jet plane flying south. Flaherty stepped on my face with his Adidas running shoes, and everything went dark, sending me spinning. I thought about the laws of entropy, how things have a way of always falling apart.
Police and Thieves moves forward at all times and does so at a nice pace, but the lives of the characters are tied down to their realities. Yes, there is a sliver of hope from time to time and there’s the dream of upward social mobility, but the immediate reality is a powerful deterrent and the ever-increasing crimes and dangers threaten to shatter the few dreams that still dare show their face. This desperation, along with the bad decisions of every character, is what Plate places inside the frame he has built: the Mission as a place/mental space. Furthermore, it is the element that colors everything and that appears to have invaded even the buildings of the Mission District:
If there was any poetry in the garage, something with a meter or a rhyme, or if nothing else, a verse that told us where we were going, I was somehow missing it. I stared up at the holes in the roof. Cobwebs dangled from the rafters. It all looked brutally naked under the sun’s circumspect gaze, and I said a little prayer for myself.
The first three novels in the Mission Quartet are ambitious in different ways, but Police and Thieves is special because the author is more in control and apparently accomplishes all he set out to do: demonstrating, in the truest, grittiest, and most entertaining way possible, that the line between police and criminals is sometimes nonexistent.