MARCH 28, 2018
SINCE HIS DEBUT in 1990 with Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley has written novels that have become part of the American canon. Throughout a prolific career that has included works in the speculative fiction and young adult genres, he’s become known for his characters and skill with plotting. His best-known books, the Easy Rawlins mysteries, draw upon a wide corps of characters to tell rich stories in a sprawling Los Angeles.
Down the River Unto the Sea, Mosley’s latest novel, moves to the opposite coast to introduce a new protagonist. Set in modern-day New York City, it follows the fall and remaking of Joe King Oliver, a police officer turned private detective. Thirteen years prior to the events of Down the River, King was a proud NYPD detective. “A good cop,” as he puts it: “[t]he kind of officer who had yards of patience and lost his temper only when threatened physically by some suspect.” His one weakness was the fairer sex; despite being happily married with a young daughter, “it didn’t take but a smile and wink for me […] to walk away from my duties and promises, vows and common sense.” This fatal flaw became his downfall when, called in to make a routine arrest of a woman suspected of grand theft auto, King fell victim to her wiles. Caught on surveillance cameras appearing to abuse his power to win sexual favors, he was charged with rape and thrown into Rikers.
Joe King’s jail stay was his turning point. In Rikers he was faced with a loss of control beyond anything he’d ever imagined; forced to fight more than six times before being put in a private cell, he “[became] a murderer-in-waiting” when a fellow inmate threw urine through his door. Retaliating against the piss-thrower resulted in the beating of a lifetime from the guards and a switch being flipped “from cop to criminal.” Worse than the physical violence, however, was the psychological toll of his unwarranted and opaque incarceration. King was completely at the mercy of forces beyond his control, an outcome that was anathema to his idea of himself as a good cop and (on the whole) a good man. His eventual release brought no relief; after more than two months the charges were dropped and he was a free man, but without any answers as to why he went through what he did, without his wife and daughter, and without a job.
Thirteen years later, Joe King Oliver is a private detective with an office in Brooklyn Heights. Police contacts (his best friend on the force, an Irishman named Gladstone) helped him land more or less on his feet; though his wife remarried, his daughter Aja-Denise is 17 and close enough to him that she works as his de facto secretary when she’s not in school. Down the River’s plot kicks into motion when two cases come to King’s desk in short order. The first offers personal vindication via a letter of apology from the woman who helped set him up more than a decade ago, now a born-again Christian in Minnesota writing to make amends for her sins and giving him the name of the officer who forced her to entrap Joe King. The second comes the next day, when a celebrity lawyer’s intern comes to his office to report that her boss is about to allow their innocent client to be convicted. A Free Man, a radical black journalist reminiscent of Mumia Abu-Jamal, is charged with the murder of two police officers; he claims they were crooked and had already killed other members of his community service organization, forcing him to act in self-defense. His high-profile lawyer, who had won Man an appeal and turned him into a cause célèbre, recently dropped the case out of the blue after a key witness disappeared, condemning him to a death sentence. It’s a lot to set up, but Mosley doesn’t waste time getting to the crux of it all. As Joe King puts it, the two cases are inextricably linked in his mind:
I tried to see a connection between Beatrice’s letter and the case of A Free Man. I knew that there was no direct link, but the similarities might be a way for me to solve a case close enough to my own so that I might feel some sense of closure without returning to Rikers. If Man was innocent and I freed him, then it would be, in some way, like freeing myself.
Mosley is one of the country’s best living mystery writers, and the book needs every bit of his care; in lesser hands such a broad mystery would become unwieldy. As is, Down the River is still a handful at times; these are two wholly separate investigations, each with its own share of backstory and complex relationships past and present. King swings back and forth between the two, deploying the help of his daughter and a criminal he knows from his police days named Melquarth — a character who in his criminal knowledge and barely controlled wildness made useful will remind any regular Mosley reader of Mouse, Easy Rawlins’s closest friend.
The lengthy cast of characters gives the book a feeling at times akin to a television pilot. There are a lot of moving parts in this plot, many falling into familiar archetypes. Down the River is a collection of tropes beyond that of even most detective novels; this is a book well aware of the detective tradition on multiple levels. Joe King is a well-read man who likes detective novels. “The dick is either smarter, braver, or just luckier than his nemeses,” he muses at one point. “If he gets arrested that’s okay.” King counts the private eyes from his books as lucky because they “usually [take] on one case at a time and [stay] on the trail until it is solved,” a luxury he doesn’t have, but otherwise his actions and the people he meets are largely familiar to the genre. There’s a billionaire, some crooked cops, some faceless goons, an elegantly menacing man in an ornate office … archetypes all the more enjoyable for their familiarity. Witness the moment a white woman walks into Joe King’s office “wearing a blue dress reminding me of the femme fatale of one of my favorite novels” — this is Mosley having fun with the form.
What doesn’t work in Down the River is closely tied to the novel’s ambitious scope. At times the book threatens to buckle under the stress of its dual plots; a reader could be forgiven for wondering if the plot could ever breathe for a minute. The demands of the parallel investigations mean that characterization, despite Mosley’s gifts, sometimes falls by the wayside. The people Joe King meets are vivid, but the book sometimes fails to take the space and time to give a character the weight they need for certain plot points to land. One particular love interest gets so little time that a late declaration of love falls flat entirely. King’s police friend Gladstone, too, suffers from the gap between what time we get to spend with him and the emotional weight his words are supposed to convey. This is in some sense unfair, maybe — if this becomes a full-fledged series there will doubtless be more room for these characters to become whole. In this story, however, the sheer amount of material that needs to be covered means that characterization gets spread thin.
More damningly, this lack of space affects Joe King as well. Where this book succeeds — where any Mosley book succeeds — is in the voice of its protagonist, but too often the density works against King. Though his story starts with a fall from grace, King is far from a finished character 13 years later; the backdrop to the plot is his complex feelings about someday returning to the other side of the blue line and dealing with feelings toward institutions and criminals that are still those of an officer. “Law to me was scripture,” he says at one point, and watching his gradual move away from this way of thinking is one of the most effective parts of the book. It feels clipped at times, though, because the pacing leaves Joe King time for only a thought before dashing back across the city to chase down another lead.
Ultimately, however, these are all relatively minor quibbles. Down the River Unto the Sea moves well enough that there’s little time to dwell on its shortcomings; following King’s actions down a propulsive plot is more than rewarding in its own right. The questions he’s looking to answer through these investigations are ultimately about himself, and Mosley is able to deliver a satisfying conclusion. Toward the end of the book Joe King gives a police officer a summary of what he’s come to realize: “I learned that reading is important, that law is an ever-changing variable equation, and that a man is a fool if he works alone […] I learned that anyone can be brought low no matter how high or powerful they are.” It works as a mission statement for both protagonist and reader.