Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley

Review published on March 5, 2018.

I’m tempted to say that this novel is as good as anything by Mosley and as I love his writing that means it’s very good indeed. Down the River Unto the Sea is entertaining and exciting, it’s fast paced and witty – I really didn’t want to put it down until I finished. Joe Oliver, Mosley’s latest PI creation, isn’t as instantly likeable as Easy Rawlins but the overall storytelling and character realisation are top notch and as the novel progresses you get Oliver more and more. So now Mosley is responsible for three of the most enjoyable shamus’s in modern crime fiction: Easy Rawlins, Leonid McGill and newcomer Joe King Oliver.

Former Detective First Class Joe King Oliver is vacantly staring out the window of his office on Montague Street. An area now gentrified, he got a cheap twenty-year lease on the place from Kristoff Hale because Sgt. Gladstone Palmer had helped his son to beat a rap when he attacked a woman. Ironically, Oliver had tried to make the charge stick. Mosley has a real knack for laying things out for the reader so that you understand the territory you are in and what the characters are about right from the start. Even though he likes to weave a complicated web of plotlines that coalesce later on. Palmer, known as Glad, gives Oliver a straightforward job picking up a car thief. He isn’t keen on pulling his surveillance on Little Exeter Barret, just when it’s getting somewhere, but the Chief of Detectives wants this bust. Tremont Bendix of Upper East Side has reported his purple Benz stolen by a girl named Nathali Malcolm. Nathali is beautiful, young and friendly and when Oliver arrives she has a totally different story. After three years with Bendix, his wife caught them and so he ended the affair, she just hasn’t returned the car yet – no crime committed. Oliver buys it, so when Nathali makes it clear she likes Oliver it isn’t his brain he’s thinking with. At home the next day the police bust in, Nathali is accusing Oliver of rape. He is being framed but only Glad is listening and so Oliver he winds up in Rikers prison – it’s a nightmare, he’s attacked, abused, dehumanised and broken.

A couple of months into his remand the Deputy Governor tells him to pack up his things as the charges have been dropped. He owes Gladstone Palmer big time, Glad looks after him back on the street. His job gone he becomes a PI and Glad gets him his early cases. His ex-wife hates him, the only bright spot in his life is his daughter, Aja, now 17 and working part-time for the King Detective Service. Still in a malaise ten years after it all happened Glad says he can get Oliver a police job in Waikiki and he’s considering it. That’s when Cindy Acres turns up wanting to have her politician husband followed. Only she’s not who she says she is, Cindy works for Ossa James and he works for Albert Stonemason, who just happens to be running for office in the same electoral district as Bob Acres. So when Oliver finds out that Acres has a penchant for transvestite prostitutes he has a choice to make, he doesn’t like being played. He helps Acres out, maybe that’s a favour that can be called in one day.

Out of the blue Nathali, now a married woman, writes to offer to tell the truth about what happened all those years ago and she gives Oliver the name of the man who set him up, Adamo Cortez. Now his little girl is grown up Oliver wants to know why he was framed.

Willa Portman works for Stuart Braun, radical celebrity lawyer. He is defending Leonard Compton, aka ‘A Free Man’, political activist (founder of The Blood Brothers of Broadway). He is accused of killing two police officers. He was found shot and wounded a few blocks from the scene carrying the murder weapon. Willa is worried that Braun is throwing the case, she has fallen for ‘A Man’ and puts her saving up so that Oliver can figure out what is going on.

As always, the dialogue is savvy and sharp, witty in the best hard-boiled tradition but maybe a bit more sober in tone. There are still great lines:

“she’s my daughter and you’re twelve miles of bad road.”

The characters are rounded, their motivations clear, apart from the odd psychopath, and they are an eclectic and fascinating mix. The young daughter, Aja, normal to all intents and purposes, is a foil that Mosley loves for his granite detectives. Mosley has that Dickensian gift for great names, Melquarth Frost is my favourite and also names that mean something – Joe King Oliver is named after the legendary Cornet player and band leader beloved by his father.

A Man and Oliver appear to be boxed in so tight that a way out seems impossible but the solution is clever and satisfying and keeps you hanging on to the very last page. There is less sex and a more considered approach to throwing fists but Down the River Unto the Sea is strong on action anyway.

It feels like there is a bit of a difference from the other two series of novels with this new book. The subject matter has always been dark in Mosley, the themes of black identity in twentieth century America and racism and poverty are always to the fore. He offers an alternative reading of history and a fascinating insight into a society not so much seen in white crime fiction. He is a chronicler of the times from the point of view of ordinary African American people. Single parenting, home ownership, getting a job, drugs and violence all feature. In Down the River Unto the Sea, a tale of modern day New York, some of these issues are less front and centre, more nuanced but there is still that quiet rage against racism. It just that the darkness comes from a heavier tone in the writing this time not the just the subject. Yet Mosley is still so readable and entertaining.

I’m still absorbing the impact of this novel, it was a great read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Paul Burke 5/5

Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley
W&N 9781474608749 pbk Mar 2018

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