THE MAN WHO CAME UPTOWN
By George Pelecanos
Little Brown, $27, 263 pages
George Pelecanos “knows.” He knows Washington, D.C., its suburbs, neighborhoods, streets, alleys and backyards and their bars and clubs, not to mention what his characters hear, wear and drive. But most of all, George Pelecanos knows the area’s people. Be they cops or the pimps and their girls, it often seems he knows them better than they know themselves. Why? Because he’s a product of Washington, D.C, of these same neighborhoods, streets and alleys.
As a high school kid, Mr. Pelecanos worked for his father, who had a diner near DuPont Circle and then a carryout on 19th Street next to what is now the Palm, Washington’s original see-and-be-seen restaurant. (He gives a shout-out to the spot on page 183.)
Making deliveries and waiting on customers broadened his people base, as did working for the Pedas Brothers, Jim and Ted, in their movie business. After several decades of writing the gritty, streetwise novels that first brought him national attention, he branched out into television, working on “The Wire” (set in Baltimore) and later writing for and producing “Treme” and the HBO series “The Deuce.”
Today, he is at least as well known for his television work as for his novels. But, as George Pelecanos proves so ably in “The Man Who Came Uptown,” his 21st novel, it would be a shame not to think of him first and foremost as anything but a superb crime writer. (No surprise: It is dedicated to two of his novel-writing heroes, Charles Willeford and Elmore Leonard.)
The book opens with private investigator Phil Ornazian, a main character, interviewing one Antonius whose legs are manacled because he was just brought up from solitary confinement. Antonius and three of his pals are in jail because of a failed robbery that was not exactly well planned.
When the robbery was attempted — in the District on a sweltering August day — all four of them were wearing black hoodies: “‘On the surveillance video,’” Ornazian, who is working for the lawyer who represents Antonius, tells the young man, “‘you guys are all standing around in the parking lot of the drugstore, and people are walking in and out of the store in T-shirts, polo shirts, and shorts. So I was wondering who thought that was a good idea?’”
Antonius knows whose idea it was, but he’s not telling. And he’s not telling because he lives by, or tries to live by, a code. It’s the first mention in the book of a code, but as the tale unfolds, the reader sees that almost all the players live, or try to live, by a code. When the good guys break the code, their rationale for employing situational ethics is that they are never as bad as the truly bad guys, the rock bottom, pond scum villains who commit the worst crimes in the book.
For example, Ornazian and his friend Thaddeus Ward (a bail bondsman who calls his business Ward’s Bonds, a name he views as the height of cleverness), are both tough ex-cops licensed to carry weapons. They have a profitable side business: robbing thieves and pimps of their ill-gotten cash. As the victims are hardly going to call the police, it’s profitable but highly dangerous. However,so far so good.
One unreservedly good character is Anna, the D.C. Public Library employee who works in the jail, providing, and recommending, books to the inmates. Mr. Pelecanos uses her to set up his recurrent theme of the redemptive power of books — and by books he means the original kind, not their pale electronic cousins. She helps Michael Hudson, a con who made one very bad mistake in his young life, but now wants to live straight. Both she and he are excellently drawn.
Ever since childhood, the author has lived in Silver Spring, Maryland — by choice. Last year, he told an interviewer why: “Where I live, there are a lot of businesses owned by Ethiopians and Eritreans. They’re the new immigrants, the new Greeks — what my people did. The next generation of these people will probably be college graduates. That’s how it works, right there in front of your eyes My sons are black, and my daughter is Latina. I didn’t want my kids to be somewhere where they were uncomfortable or only with people who didn’t look like them. It was a good choice. It is a melting pot here. It’s one of the few places that are truly melting racially, economically, demographically.”
In this book, George Pelecanos stretches, showing a broader understanding of his characters’ actions and motivations, and the result is a more interesting book. I hope that whatever he may do in television in the future, he never stops writing novels.
• John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).
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