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A Quiet Purpose Propels Pelecanos' Thriller 'The Man Who Came Uptown'

The Man Who Came Uptown is the first novel from the acclaimed master of Washington, D.C. noir George Pelecanos that might be deemed literary fiction instead of thriller.

Don't worry, Pelecanos fans. This book still contains plenty of action, all of it set in the district and some of it hardboiled indeed — plastic zip-tie cuffs, sawed-off shotguns and getaway cars abound. Much of this involves a private eye named Phil Ornazian who believes he's a modern-day Robin Hood, but who operates more like a rogue for the ages.

Phil's path will cross with those of two others. Anna Kaplan Byrne runs the book-group program at district jail, where she genuinely loves her work and chooses titles with care both for the group meetings, and for individual convicts who express interest in themes and authors they discuss.

One of those convicts is Michael Hudson, a young man whose criminal past got him to jail. His appeal succeeds, and when he parts from Anna they exchange contact information. Michael goes home to his grandmother's, where one of his first acts is to find a bookcase on the street, clean it up and place it in his sparsely furnished room so he can begin to fill it with Anna's recommendations. He manages to get a job as a dishwasher at a neighborhood pizza joint and begins to make a quiet, steady life for himself on the outside. He spends a little money on books but saves most of it for his future.

Once or twice, Michael sees Anna, and the attraction between them cannot be denied. She finds herself unnerved by her feelings, and her husband is angered when Michael shows up once at their nearby home — prison employees aren't supposed to share personal details with convicts.

Meanwhile, a Potomac, Md., man hires Phil to find out who attacked his teenaged daughter and pillaged his house during a high-school party gone awry. Promised a large fee, Phil can't resist — after all, he and his dishy English wife Sydney have two young sons whose education he wants to ensure. (One of the most cringeworthy moments in the novel occurs when Phil shows off a nude photo of Syd; we need to know his judgment isn't always sound.)

Phil and his frequent partner in crime Thaddeus Ward, who owns a business called "Ward Bonds," decide on a plan to trap the boy they believe carried out the theft. They'll need a getaway car, and Phil enlists Michael as its driver. Michael feels he can't refuse since Phil helped secure his release from prison.

Yes, Michael drives the car. Yes, Phil carries out his plan. Yes, Anna stays married. To say much more would mean spoilers.

But it's no spoiler to say this is when the quiet purpose behind the plot emerges, a story that has more to do with philosophy than procedure. How should a person live? What should we own? Who is happiest, the hermit or the family guy?

To see Pelecanos make this turn is wonderful. He's always been an incisive and elegant writer. Now he has reached a different level. That doesn't mean the book is perfect. Occasionally Michael's inner strength and determination makes him seem a little too simplistic as a character; would a man who had seen life "uptown" (as prison is sometimes known to its community) not struggle more with newfound freedom? Anna's love of literature could be expanded on, too, since she clearly has chops, recommending Dinaw Mengestu and Tim O'Brien to Michael.

These are minor quibbles, really, about a book that is a modern storytelling master's paean to the power of books, literature, librarians, and booksellers. Pelecanos, who has spent time volunteering with prison literacy programs, understands how important the right story can be at the right time for a person, how it can provide the strength and determination to get past deprivation and ignorance and mistakes. "When he read a book, he wasn't in his cage anymore," Michael Hudson thinks. "When he read a book, the door to his cell was open." The Man Who Came Uptown will be welcomed by longtime George Pelecanos readers, but it shouldn't be missed by those who haven't enjoyed his work before, either.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets@TheBookMaven.

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Bethanne Patrick