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The Turnaround, by George Pelecanos

Heart and soul – but not rap – in the ghetto

If you regard crime fiction as an avenue of escape from the troubling realities of modern society, George Pelecanos is not for you. If, however, you feel that crime is a branch of literature that can confront social problems more trenchantly than most literary novels, this writer should be on your bedside table. Pelecanos has been a ruthless anatomist of the inequalities of American society, and a passionate advocate for change. The Turnaround is a return to form after recent below-par entries, its unfolding narrative shot through with a visceral energy.

It's 1972, and summer in Washington DC. Three white teenagers, high on drugs, drive a stolen car through a dangerous black neighbourhood. Shouting racial taunts at kids, they are enjoying their bravado, but suddenly find themselves trapped in a dead-end street with a mob that wants payback. Violence erupts, and two boys get away, while one, Billy, is killed.

Both the white teenagers and neighbourhood youths go on with their lives, but several have been changed irrevocably. Three decades pass, and there is contact between two of those involved. But what looks like the possibility for a rough salvation is endangered by another protagonist, finally out of prison and set on bloody revenge.

Those who know Pelecanos will expect a multifaceted approach to crime and race that refuses easy answers. The author's sympathy for the black community is well known, and his blood boils at the disenfranchising of a whole swathe of society. But this sympathy doesn't preclude his bitter criticism of the self-destructive, meaningless violence and empty macho posturing of the young men in the ghetto.

The famous music "playlists" of Pelecanos's books – an annotated soundtrack of favourite rock and soul – do not feature rap. Thankfully, he has reined in this stylistic tic: another reason why The Turnaround is his most incisive and authoritative novel in some time.

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