For crime writers, such summary judgments focus either on specific characters -- Chandler's Marlowe, Christie's Marple and Poirot, Highsmith's Ripley -- or indelible one-offs, like Eric Ambler's "A Coffin for Dimitrios" and Dorothy B. Hughes' "In a Lonely Place." Characters inspire loyalty, passion and debate among readers; one-offs spur reexamination, depending on the time period of discovery.
Certainly, all his novels share certain attributes: chronicling urban Washington, D.C., as it was then and now, paying attention to the nuances of racial tensions and togetherness, examining masculinity against the backdrop of criminality, all set to musical soundtracks.
But the three early '90s novels featuring accidental P.I. Nick Stefanos crackle with a youthful energy that sobers up in two subsequent period-heavy quartets, and disappears entirely starting with 2006's "The Night Gardener."
To use art class terminology, the Stefanos trilogy represents Pelecanos' student days, the D.C. Quartet is early (when he's more or less found his voice), the novels starring Derek Strange and Terry Quinn (especially 2004's "Hard Revolution") are early-late, and now, in his early 50s, it is only right that Pelecanos is thick in his middle period. The prose isn't as loose but the edges aren't as sharp. The musical soundtrack plays, but it blends better into the scene. Urban D.C. remains the setting, but with history dispensed with, social concerns are contemporary and do not resort to a younger man's righteous bombast.
The strongest example of this quieter approach in Pelecanos' new novel, "The Way Home," appears early on, the turning point that transforms Chris Flynn from a trouble-prone, pot-smoking teenager into a youth-detention statistic: "He drove west on Livingston, the street where he lived, and a car turned off 41st and fell in behind him. The car was a big square sedan and it was then that he knew." By the end of that paragraph, Chris has been cuffed by a policeman ready to recount his recent transgressions: "The woman who hit our cruiser at Morrison, where you blew that stop sign? Mother of three. She's in Sibley's emergency room with severe injuries. They collared her and taped her to a gurney. And that kid in the parking lot is gonna be breathing through his mouth for a while. You broke his nose."
The sentence: two years at Pine Ridge as the only white male in a predominantly black juvenile lockup, and further confirmation for his construction company owner father, Thomas, of how things went awry in the child-rearing department. His first child with wife Amanda had died two days after she was born: "Kate would be eighteen now. We'd be looking at colleges. We'd be taking photos of her, dressed up for the senior prom. Instead of visiting [Chris] with his prison uniform and his pride in knowing 'how to jail.' " On the flip side is Chris' God-fearing mother who, after visiting Chris in jail soon after his arrest, "saw a young man who had been locked up for a day and a night, who was confused and ashamed, who had to be hungry, who needed to be fed."
Act 1 finished, Pelecanos gets to work on the meat of the story: how Chris' juvenile incarceration strips away folly and transforms him into a hard-working man on the cusp of redemption.
He is ready to settle down, yet the prospect of returning to his old ways dangles over him with far greater potential costs. The scenes at juvenile hall bring to mind Don Carpenter's 1966 tome "Hard Rain Falling" (to be reissued this fall with an introduction by Pelecanos), especially in its depiction of emerging masculinity within detention walls: "Of the many things Chris learned at Pine Ridge, one would be embedded in his mind for years after his release: When you or one of your own is attacked, retaliation is mandatory, no matter the consequences or repercussions. It has to be on."
The lesson serves Chris well during the redemptive phase, when a chance discovery underneath a floorboard provokes a series of cascading moral dilemmas that puts him on the same path as a couple of sociopaths straight out of a Charles Willeford novel.
Even then, as he does with a middle-class matron, a quietly seething waitress and Chris' fellow Pine Ridge mates, Pelecanos passes no judgment, depicting them with an understanding of their character: "[They] had been institutionalized for most of their lives, and they did not know how to dress, converse, or wear facial hair like straights. In an urban environment, they were socially inept."
"The Way Home" remains true to its titular purpose; as a result, the structure is perhaps less weighted toward a classic narrative arc and more toward the journey itself. As with his last two novels, Pelecanos demonstrates that redemption, if it comes at all, is hard-won.
Weinman writes "Dark Passages," a monthly mystery and suspense column, for latimes.com/books and blogs about the genre at www.sarahweinman.com.