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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley

Mulholland Books, 336 pages, $27

Walter Mosley has written thirteen Easy Rawlins novels, with one set of short stories, and three Socrates Fortlow, three Fearless Jones, five Leonid McGill, and twenty other books and short story collections. That’s quite a writing feat. It’s hard to come up with a completely new design for a series — and who’s to say that the main character in “Down the River Unto the Sea” will star in a new a series — so there are elements of his other characters in Joe King Oliver, the duplicitously framed ex-cop and current day private investigator.

Joe is a “deep shade of brown,” and too, Joe's world is colored by the expert hand of an expert novelist. Why do people love Walter Mosley? Because, quite simply, the man can write. He also expresses a sympathy for human failings without giving up on a core of morality. If his works are to judge by, Mosley also believes no man stands alone, that there must be something or someone for whom his protagonists must fight the long, lonely struggle.

Joe King Oliver’s marriage did not survive his frame-up for raping a woman and his temporary incarceration in prison, before being inexplicably released. He was dismissed from the NYPD, where he had been a good, solid detective, first class. Through it all, Joe kept connected with his daughter, now seventeen years old and an afterschool receptionist in his private eye office. He is her white knight and she never lost the belief that he was a good person. That is what shines at his core, his desire to protect and mentor her.

Now an opportunity arrives for him to prove who was behind the frame-up years ago. It involves a convoluted journey to follow-up one lead after another, to track down and “interview” one person after another for the next clue that will get him up the ladder. Joe is at first fervent about his potential exoneration, but it may come at the cost of endangering his daughter, his ex-wife, and her odious new husband.

Also, a new case presents itself, courtesy of Aja, Joe’s daughter. She has met and brought in a teary-eyed young lawyer, Willa. Willa is beside herself because the big-time lawyer for whom she works appears to have dropped his defense of “A Free Man,” the determined advocate for a black community who changed his name to reflect his self-declared status. Something is fishy and Joe has a lot of sympathy for fishy … and for his daughter’s passion for the project. So now Joe has a second labyrinthine endeavor. He is up to his eyeballs finding the shadowy power players behind both cases.

There are many characters of both long and short duration, all of whom are given the “Mosley touch” which springs them off of the page. Most notable is Melquarth Frost, a smart criminal with cold eyes. He kills without compunction. They used to be on opposite sides of the fence, but Joe always had a respect for Mel, a devil he knows. Opposites make for a great push-pull of characters, and Mosley has already demonstrated his canniness in using that device.

As with Mosley’s male characters in other books, Joe is a man’s man. Mel is a man’s criminal. There are quite a few female characters, but they are depthless, even Joe’s beloved daughter. The closest to genuine revelation is the character of Nathali Malcolm, the woman who entrapped him in the rape scandal, but having fulfilled her purpose, she disappears.

Mosley asks the question, Which is better: being sold up the river or being sold down the river?

Here is a small sample of Mosley’s writing. Joe is in prison for the alleged rape:

When I quit moving, time congealed around me like amber over a mosquito that had taken a small misstep. I could hear my breaths and feel the pulse in my temples. It was in that moment I understood the prhase serving time. I was that servant.

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