Crime novelists are a prolific bunch; you can set your watch by the annual instalments by the Big Names in the genre.

I know Christmas is coming when the new Lee Child and Michael Connelly novels arrive - but it's been five years since the last George Pelecanos novel although a collection of short stories, The Martini Shot, appeared in 2014.

For fans of the Washington-based novelist - whom Stephen King calls "perhaps the greatest living American writer" – it's been five years too long. That absence can be explained by his Emmy-nominated work with David Simon on The Wire, the much underrated Treme (set in New Orleans) and most recently the New York-based The Deuce (second season out now).

But the publication this month of his 20th novel, The Man Who Came Uptown, proves the sojourn in TV land has only brought focus and precision to the writing. The prose is leaner; its impact more nuanced. The characters, who include a crooked P.I. and an ageing cop, Thaddeus Ward, who team up for some self-serving vigilante justice, are fully realised.

Dedicated to late crime greats Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford, TMWCU is a powerful and moving meditation on crime, redemption, family and, most surprisingly, the power of literature.

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Written during a "window between television seasons" it's centred around a jailhouse librarian and a young criminal, whose teenage life was ruled by "impulse and confusion" but who's now trying to go straight. His world is expanded through his exposure to literature in prison but, once free, pressures threaten to pull him back.

Pelecanos researched the novel, as he always does, by "wandering around the city, talking to people on both sides of the law". No one knows Washington D.C. and its people like Pelecanos. He was born and bred there and has set all his books in and around the capital.

The Washington Post recently called you "the man who made TV great again". How has your work on the various shows you've been involved with influenced your novels/short stories?
I guess the screenwork made the prose leaner. But my scripts read like novels in a way. Very detailed, thick paragraphs … so it goes both ways.

You've been described as a stickler for detail when it comes to filming – locations, fashions, music especially – and that's also present in your novels. What does that sort of authenticity bring to the finished product?
I get very focused on the cars, the costumes, the hair and makeup, the production design. Don't get me wrong, we have incredibly talented people in charge of those departments. But I do hold their feet to the fire. I actually think they like my level of involvement.

Has being a producer and showrunner made your life easier when it comes to access in the research phase of your books?
Well, TV has made me more famous. The Wire, in particular, opened up a ton of doors for me. Police wanted to let me into their world after that show came on. I started getting calls from people on the other side of the law as well. People want to talk to me now.

The Man Who Came Uptown George Pelecanos (Orion $38)
The Man Who Came Uptown George Pelecanos (Orion $38)

In a way you're a man who's moved uptown. Did writing this novel cause you to reflect on your own young life in D.C.?

It's been a blessing to get to do what I've wanted to do since I was a kid. All I wanted was to make movies and tell stories. The truth is, I make good bread but I'd do it for free. I hope nobody who pays me reads this interview.

You quote Steinbeck in the novel: "Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love."
It seems that's even more apt today in America than when Steinbeck wrote it.
It's deliberate that I use that quote in the book. We've lost our way as a country. People have forgotten who we are, collectively. I'm an optimist, generally. I think this ill wind will pass.

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Anna the jailhouse librarian wants to "pull people through the keyhole". Have you seen a man's life turned around by books, and where did the idea of a novel centred around a prison librarian come from?
I've been working in jails and prisons for years doing reading and writing programmes. I've seen what books can do for inmates first hand. Hell, it happened to me. I was rudderless when I was younger, in and out of trouble. My life changed when I started reading books.

The Man Who Came Uptown
by George Pelecanos
(Orion, $38)