While awaiting trial for armed robbery, Michael Hudson discovers his love for reading while trying to pass the time inside his Washington D.C. jail cell. Each week, personal librarian Anna Kaplan Byrne carefully selects books she thinks Michael will enjoy, each title designed to take him outside the confined prison setting. It’s a temporary fix, allowing him to escape, figuratively, though it does little to prepare him for his actual escape.
Outside the prison walls, other forces are hard at work to make sure that Michael’s freedom is secured. Seeing to that personally is Phil Ornazian, an investigator and “fixer” for attorney Matthew Mirapaul, a longtime friend of Michael’s. After a little persuasion, a key witness refuses to testify, torpedoing the state’s case against Michael, who is suddenly kicked free after all the charges are unexpectedly dropped.
Now freed, Michael quickly realizes that the Washington D.C. he steps out into is much different than the one he left behind. While struggling to get his life back together, he spends time working a dead-end job at a local restaurant, until he’s eventually approached by Ornazian, who reveals that he’s got a little side business going with a local bail bondsman. Playing street vigilantes, Ornazian’s crew makes cash by knocking off local pimps and gangbangers, and Michael, it turns out, is their latest prized recruit.
Revealing that nothing is ever really free, Ornazian reminds Michael of the debt he owes him for getting him out of prison and lets him know that he can begin paying it back by driving a getaway car for an upcoming job. Predictably, one job turns into two jobs, and then three, each requiring more from Michael, who might have dodged a lengthy jail sentence but is still imprisoned by Ornazian and his agenda, even though all he wants is to leave behind the life of crime and settle down with a great novel and live a quiet life. As he’ll soon find out, it’s rarely easy to do the right thing . . . and sometimes, you have to be a little bad if you want to be good.
Once again, Pelecanos’ strong prose is on full display, sucking readers helplessly into his fictional universe. Michael is well-developed and plenty relatable, exhibiting a number of qualities and flaws that Pelecanos presents in a believable way. He’s a family man, but a criminal. He wants a simple life, but can’t seem to turn from crime. Readers will no doubt enjoy seeing his many layers peeled back as the story unfolds. Really, the only issue is that the idea of a misunderstood criminal suddenly getting sprung from prison only to discover that they must pay off their debt by engaging in criminal acts is far from a new idea.
While the original plot concept goes back much further, Steve Hamilton recently built a new series around this same idea beginning with his bestselling 2016 thriller, The Second Life of Nick Mason. To say that the stories are similar would be a massive understatement, though it should be pointed out that they do have some key differences as well. While Hamilton’s series (which continued with last year’s Exit Strategy) is more crime thriller-ish with an emphasis on pacing and action sequences, Pelecanos slows things down a bit then delivers a message that’ll get readers thinking about a variety of topics. The slow-burn, thought-provoking story is solid, but experienced readers will likely see the ending coming a mile away. Still, the ride there is enjoyable.
Author: George Pelecanos
Pages: 272 (Hardcover)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Release Date: September 5th, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 6.5/10
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck (“The Godfather of the thriller genre” — Ben Coes) has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.