The Way Home, By George Pelecanos

By George! More smart crime drama
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It was once necessary in well-read circles to apologise for not having tackled Proust or Joyce.

But Proust/Joyce virgins have been replaced by those forced to admit, "I'm afraid I haven't watched The Wire." Of course, a lot of us have watched it, and our proselytising usually goes along the lines of: "David Simon is wonderful! And do you know who else writes for the show? Dennis Lehane! Richard Price! And George Pelecanos!"

As The Way Home eloquently reminds us, Pelecanos is among the most formidable of current American novelists, with an unerring grasp of modern idioms. The coarse-grained, pungent America of his books has a bleak truth. Despite his own Greek heritage, he evokes the black experience with authority (a skill used in his TV work). The Way Home, however, is a distillation of another favourite theme: the difficult relationship between fathers and sons.

Thomas Flynn is a working-class father, distressed at having to leave his teenage son Chris at a juvenile prison near Washington. But he is adamant: his son must take his punishment for his involvement in a world of street violence, car theft and drugs. Ten years pass, and Chris appears to be reformed. He has a girlfriend, a job (working with his father) and his own apartment. But Chris's old life is to come to the fore again when he comes across some stolen money, with devastating results.

The compromised, messy world of Pelecanos's characters is realised with the dexterity that we expect. The streets of Washington are the backdrop for a drama that is, at times, redolent of a latter-day Greek tragedy, with redemption won at a very hard price. Themes reach beyond the parameters of the crime novel: what are the limits of the father-son relationship? How do we deal with impossible choices?

There are no real conclusions – and some may question notions of responsibility in The Way Home. But Pelecanos has never been in the business of easy answers. Asking the questions is enough for him.