Book Review: George Pelecanos’ 'Owning Up' has elegant prose and well-drawn characters

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Although George Pelecanos has devoted much of his energy toward writing for television in recent years ("The Wire," “The Duce,” “We Own This City”), he has continued to produce first-rate crime novels set in his native Washington, D.C.

Working in a genre often associated with grisly murders, car chases, gunfights, and clear lines between good and evil, he has always been less interested in the search for justice than in exploring the lives of complex characters who straddle both sides of the law.

Now, in “Owning Up,” he presents four novellas that trace the consequences of a random event or single bad choice in the life stories of everyday people.

Ira Rubin, an aimless young man from a middle class family, has just been cut a break, escaping a prison sentence for a check kiting scheme. But on his second day of work as an extra on a Baltimore movie set, he spots a package left on a stoop and impulsively steals it.

Joseph Caruso is working on his second cup of morning coffee when a SWAT team searching for his oldest son breaks down their doors and tears their home apart. The tale follows Joseph, his wife, and his three children, showing the disparate ways in which the traumatic event affects each of them.

Leah Brown, a young woman who longs to write a historical novel but doubts her ability to do so, begins her research by interviewing her grandmother in a nursing home. Gradually, she uncovers her family’s tangential connection to a decades-old District of Columbia race riot.

And Nikos, a Greek American teenager who is enthralled with a streetwise older man, barely escapes getting entangled in a violent crime thanks to the intervention of a co-worker.

Although each tale is short, averaging 56 pages, they are sweeping, tracing the consequences of these events over a lifetime. Crime fiction readers seeking action and suspense will find little of it here. Instead, the book is distinguished by well-drawn characters, elegant prose and thoughtful insights about human nature.

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

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