The author of 19 bestselling novels set in and around Washington, D.C., and a producer and Emmy-nominated writer on the HBO series The Wire and Treme, George Pelecanos knows how to tell a story about the darker side of life. His latest, The Man Who Came Uptown (Mulholland, Sept.), about an ex-con who has to choose between the man who got him out of jail and a librarian who showed him a different way to live, is no exception. Yet Pelecanos also views it as “a love letter to reading.”

It’s a new kind of story for Pelecanos, who has spent the past 15 years participating in inmate literacy programs. While volunteering at the D.C. jail, he met librarian Danielle Zoller, who used to travel the jail with a book cart before a jail library was created.

“I’m always in awe of people like that,” says Pelecanos. “She had to stage this cart according to the desires and likes of these guys based on who they are and where they are [in the prison]. There’s a lot of thought that goes into it.”

Real inmates shaped Michael Hudson, the main character in The Man Who Came Uptown, who learns to read with the help of a librarian. Pelecanos says many inmates take to reading even though they have never read a book before arriving in jail. “If you haven’t read a book, and you’re predisposed to like it, a light bulb goes off,” he says.

Reading inevitably leads to writing, and Pelecanos included one inmate’s short story in D.C. Noir (2006), an anthology he edited. “I didn’t do it as a favor to him. I did it because it was a really good story,” says Pelecanos.

That inmate, Lester Irby, has since died. But Pelecanos says Irby’s experience was similar to the struggles Hudson faces after being released. “As a felon, there are so many things against you,” Pelecanos says.

In the face of such adversity, he adds, reading is one of the few things that has the potential to offer hope and “pull somebody through the keyhole.”