Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book Review: "The Man Who Came Uptown" by George Pelecanos

I know I ask this of certain authors from time to time, but why isn't George Pelecanos a star?

In addition to being the author of some pretty terrific crime novels, he's been a writer on television shows like The Wire and Treme, and co-created the series The Deuce. I've often heard about his books becoming movies, but nothing ever seems to come to fruition, and I just don't understand it. This man should be a household name. His books should be seen in people's hands wherever they read in public.

With his newest book, The Man Who Came Uptown, Pelecanos shows that he is a master at creating characters who are more comfortable veering from the straight and narrow, but often have the best of intentions, and he flexes his suspense and action muscles like nobody's business. But at the same time, he shows off a more introspective side, as this book is also a tribute to the love of books and the transformational power of reading.

Michael Hudson is a young man in prison, determined to serve his time without making any enemies or causing trouble. The bright light during his sentence is his interaction with Anna, the prison librarian, who introduces him and his fellow inmates to books and authors they might never have read or even heard of otherwise. Michael, in particular, is tremendously appreciative of Anna's attention and her book recommendations, as she is opening his eyes and his mind to the beauty and power of words and images.

When Michael's sentence is overturned thanks to the manipulations of a private investigator, he is ready to start again. He knows he made some foolish mistakes, but he wants a new life—he wants to find a job, make something of himself, take care of his mother, and find time to read. Even though the Washington, DC he knew before he went to prison has started to change, with gentrification and newer stores, restaurants, and houses popping up everywhere, it still feels like home to him, and with a book in his hand, he feels even more secure.

When the man who saw to his release from prison comes to collect the debt Michael owes him, Michael knows he has a choice. But what path is the right one: doing what is necessary to square your obligations like a man, or running the risk of having to go back to prison again, and destroying everything he has started to build? As the crooked private investigator gets more and more enmeshed in trouble, Michael isn't sure whether honor is worth the risk.

I'll admit, when I started reading this I expected another of Pelecanos' crime novels, so I didn't understand why it was taking so long to get to the action and suspense, why he was laying out so much of the story. But when I realized what he was doing, I let myself enjoy the beauty of his writing and his characters (something I always do when reading his books, although my pulse is usually pounding at the same time), and thought about just how important reading has been to me all my life.

When the criminal elements of the plot kick in, Pelecanos goes at them full throttle, and you don't realize just how much you've gotten invested in these characters, so you're hoping the age-old battle fought by the man trying to start his life anew won't end the same way here. This book isn't one of his most explosive, and that's totally fine, as long as you know to expect that.

Pelecanos is one of those authors that needs to be read. Whether you're a fan of crime writing, suspense, beautiful storytelling, or like to read about Washington, DC in the 1970s and 1980s, you can find one of his books to match your desire. And don't miss this one—especially if you're like me, and your life has been changed by reading.

NetGalley and Mulholland Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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