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Books

The Infinite Blacktop, Sara Gran: The Man Who Came Uptown, George Pelecanos

Doug Johnstone detects skilful storytelling and an uncompromising streak in two novelists turned TV cop writers

This week we’re looking at books by a couple of American authors who have recently been immersed in the world of television. The rise of streaming services has seen an explosion of dramatic content, and more and more novelists are being lured into writing for television, especially across the pond.

It will be interesting to see how this affects authors’ future work. On the one hand, the structures and tropes of television drama might seep into the books, then again perhaps their novels will show more experimentation, breaking free from the restraints of the small screen.

TheInfiniteBlacktop is Sara Gran’s sixth novel and the third to feature her wonderful anti-hero Claire DeWitt. It’s been five years since Gran’s last book, during which time she’s been one of the main writers on the underrated LA cop show Southland. The Infinite Blacktop is as uncompromising as Gran’s previous work and it literally starts with a bang, DeWitt coming to after being run off an Oakland road and left for dead by an unknown assailant.

deWitt is as uncompromising and daring as her creator, in a book that is deeply in love with the ethos of classic private detective fiction

What then follows is a masterclass in plotting, characterisation and style, as three storylines set in three different places and times are beautifully intertwined to create a mesmerising picture of a woman on the edge in every sense. So we get DeWitt’s burgeoning detective skills in 1980s Brooklyn, we get her solving a case in 1990s Los Angeles, and we have her hunting down her attempted murderer in the present day.

DeWitt is obsessed with the art of detection, specifically the writings of an obscure French detective, and there are elements in The Infinite Blacktop that verge on the mystical and metaphysical. Throughout it all, Claire DeWitt is as uncompromising and daring as her creator, in a book that is deeply in love with the ethos of classic private detective fiction, while also dragging it screaming into the twenty-first century. It’s been five years since Gran’s last novel, and I hope it’s not another five until her next sublime offering.

George Pelecanos has considerably more television writing experience, having been both a writer and producer on The Wire, Treme and most recently The Deuce. He’s written twenty novels over the last quarter of a century, but it has also been five years since his last. TheManWhoCameUptown is absolutely worth the wait.

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It’s a short book at just over 200 pages but it packs an immense emotional punch, and while it ostensibly qualifies as a crime novel, it’s as much a character study and love letter to the power of books as a plot-twister. The story revolves around a triumvirate of fascinating and flawed characters. Anna is a jailhouse librarian, trying to improve the lives of her prisoners, Michael is a convict who has to deal with putting his life back together upon release, and Phil is a private investigator who doubles as a vigilante criminal.

Pelecanos gets under the skins of his characters with immense skill and really digs deep into the conflict in all of us, the small battles of good versus evil that occur in everyday lives. It is classic fatalistic noir, looking at how tiny decisions can have drastic consequences down the road, and the author never goes for easy answers, adding to the power and truthfulness of his fictional world. Terrific stuff.

The Infinite Blacktop, Sara Gran (Faber, £14.99)

The Man Who Came Uptown, George Pelecanos (Orion, £20)

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