"The Man Who Came Uptown" (Mulholland Books), by George Pelecanos

Anna Byrne, a prison librarian in Washington, is good at selecting books that keep prisoners entertained, but seldom does she succeed in introducing an inmate to literature that makes him think differently about life.

But Michael Hudson, awaiting trial for driving the getaway car in an armed robbery, is such an inmate — a young man she's turned into an avid reader. So when Michael stops coming by for books, she hopes he's OK.

Michael, it turns out, was released because the witness against him refuses to testify. Returning to his supportive mother's home, he discovers the neighborhood is being gentrified, finds a job washing dishes, vows to go straight and spends every idle moment reading.

The witness recanted because Phil Orzanian, a private detective working on the case, threatened him and his family. Orzanian is a devoted family man, but he's ethically challenged. He and Thaddeus Ward, an aging former cop who misses the action, rob drug dealers and pimps on the side.

Readers of previous Pelecanos novels such as "Hell to Pay" might miss the action, too, since the first half of "The Man Who Came Uptown" is filled with descriptions of his characters' daily lives and their D.C. neighborhoods.

The first sign of conflict occurs more than 130 pages in. Orzanian needs a wheelman for a robbery, contacts Michael and calls in a favor for springing him.

Even then, this remains a quiet, almost pensive book as Michael continues to read obsessively and struggles with which side of the law to live his life on. As Orzanian begins to have qualms about his crimes. As Anna, reconnecting with Michael on the outside, wrestles with her vaguely dissatisfying marriage and a magnetic attraction to the young reader.

This is a book about love of family, about the stresses that can lure almost anyone into crime and about how hard it can be for someone like Michael to make it on the outside. But most of all, it is a book about the transformative powers of friendship and reading. The story is told in tight, soulful prose by a novelist who has devoted many hours to inmate literacy programs in D.C.


Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including "The Dread Line."