Book Review: The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos

The Man Who Came Uptown - George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos is the writer behind The Deuce, The Wire and Treme, so you can have few doubts that he knows the subject he writes about, which is inner city crime, race issues and the moral battles that have to be confronted by individuals on all sides of the divide. Not having the luxury of a full season to develop some characters and ideas, The Man Who Came Uptown nonetheless deals with many of those matters in a brilliant condensed form in a short novel that is barely more that 200 pages, although inevitably it suffers a little from compression down to what amounts to a double-length TV episode.

The novel centres around two main characters on either side of the divide in the Washington DC region who operate in that dangerous shadowy area between doing what it right from them and their families and getting entangled in criminality. One is Private Investigator Paul Ornazian who gets things sorted but to do that you sometimes have to operate not strictly above board. His clients come from very different parts of the community, from youths involved in armed robberies, to a wealthy family looking to find out who ripped up their home and sexually assaulted their daughter when her party was gatecrashed by undesirables.

One of Ornazian's cases involves Michael Hudson, a young 20 year old black man whose life is in danger of going off the rails, about to be charged as the driver of a car in an armed robbery. Ornazian has managed to have the charges against Michael dropped, and the boy is keen to put his old life behind him. While in remand, Michael has joined a reading group and thanks to Anne Byrne, the jailhouse librarian, he has been inspired to appreciate other ways of living and how the world can be a better place. It's not easy for a youth with a juvenile criminal record to find work, but a few people are willing to give Michael a chance and he's determined not to let them down.

Basically however the way Pelecanos looks at it, they are all just people with problems and those problems are very much a part of society and how it works. Some make stupid mistakes, hang out with the wrong people and are drawn into criminality, but the author - and Ornazian - looks at all sides and takes a wider perspective, also seeing things from the perspective of the victims. This leads the PI to undertake some vigilante activities of his own with an old friend, hitting the houses of criminals who have a lot of illegally gained money from prostitution. Phil sees this as a little sideline that not only gets to places that justice can't reach, it also helps pay some of the bills. And he knows a young man called Michael Hudson who might be able to help him with the next raid.

The Man Who Came Uptown is episodic, and you could imagine each of these characters and their backgrounds being fully explored in a TV series episode, but Pelecanos manages nonetheless to bring the various strands together and brilliantly develop their personalities in the manner in which they relate to one another. It gives you an authentic, in-depth and frankly disturbing insight into the lives of youth and the pervasiveness of criminality in America spreading to all parts of society. There's a cool detachment to the writing, an inner reflectiveness that comes from the focus on characters rather than action, but there is no shortage of incident in this short novel either.

If anything the need to ensure that there are no loose ends and provide closure to the narrative arcs means that things are perhaps a little too compressed and as a consequence feel burdened with providing an instructive moral. That's the nature of books however and very much a characteristic of the books that open up new horizons for Michael Hudson, and perhaps that is the ultimate aim of Pelecanos's writing for page and screen. Not just to provide crime thrills and spills, not just to point out the ills in our society, but to look at it in a different way and ponder whether we can write a better ending for it.

The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos is published by Orion on 6th September 2018

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