Friday, June 12, 2020

"Down the River unto the Sea," by Walter Mosley--Fiction Review

It’s Friday gumshoes, and today’s review is of a noir-style detective mystery, “Down the River unto the Sea” by Walter Mosley.  

Walter Mosley

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

First, the gritty uncompromising detail of this novel, it’s a noir-style mystery, so that’s appropriate. Also, the main character, Joe King Oliver, who was formerly NYPD and was framed and disgraced by dirty cops in the department and sent to Rikers Island, has the added dimension of being an ex-cop in prison and being black. So it doesn’t go well—would be a massive understatement. Mosley captures the horrors of being a black man on the wrong side of the law and the unique terror of being simultaneously a fallen paragon of said law.

It’s no secret here if you’re a return reader of this blog, but I’m a big audiobook fan. So a big reason I like this book is that the narrator, Dion Graham, perfectly captures the voice of the world-weary PI. Something about his performance makes Walter Mosley’s already polished but blunt—straightforward but educated—prose sparkle. There is a quality to the writing that without coming right out and saying it, that this is what the real lived-in world is like, and it sweeps you up in its narrative and doesn’t stop until it’s over.     

There are references to jazz, and Thelonious Monk in the narrative, which are appropriate because if a book could capture the spirit of a jazzy improvisational style without being a book specifically about jazz music—it’s this one. Mosley’s writing above all else to me is musical, lyrical even. 

What I don’t love about this book:

A lot of criminal mystery novel clich├ęs are packed into this plot. The twists and turns in the plot are all rote and barely caused me anything resembling shock. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, and this doesn’t make it a bad novel, it’s just a little predictable. 

You know how I just said this novel two paragraphs ago, captures the spirit of jazzy improvisation? Yeah, I meant that purely in how Mosley writes, the actual writing stylistically ebbs and flows, changes, and experiments. The plotting doesn’t do that. Nearly every chapter of the book has a sandwich quality. What I mean by this is: the critical information comes at the beginnings and ends of each chapter. The in-between bits are where the character work happens, which is enjoyable, since Mosley’s characters are all flawed, and interesting, multifaceted people.

There is one thing though about the main character that I don’t like: he has a troublesome relationship with women, in general. He doesn’t hate them or hit them, nothing like that, but you could say he loves them a little too much, which includes his daughter. Some of his comments and observations are creepy.    

Every time I read a detective mystery, or a police procedural, where there is someone seemingly in the inner circle of the detective who is probably a traitor, I play a game. And the game is called: is the traitor the detective's best friend/long time partner/trusted mentor?  

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

Hey, let's look at that cover again. If you don't want spoilers maybe turn back. 
Walter Mosley

The quick and dirty synopsis:

—yes, yes, it is in this case.

The story starts with Joe King Oliver, in his office, reminiscing about what led him to his current life as a private investigator. This sets up a jump back in time by about a decade when Joe was investigating some mysterious goings-on at the docks when he’s given the assignment to arrest a woman for stealing a car. When King gets there, he finds the woman is in the process of moving, turns out she’s the mistress of the man who said she stole his car, and his wife is upset about the whole thing. Hence the accusation of grand theft auto. Sympathetic to the lady’s cause, King doesn’t arrest her, and since he has a weakness for pretty women, he ends up sleeping with her after she seduces him. All of this is a setup, and King gets arrested when the woman claims he raped her. Which sidebar: this is what I mean about King having a creepy relationship with women. Even though the rape charge wasn’t exactly true, King should have known better because no interaction that begins with arresting someone, under no circumstance should ever transmute to having sex. Ever.

Anyway, we jump forward by that little more than a decade, and King is a PI, who got his start because his best friend Gladstone Palmer helped set it up, in more ways than one. King’s daughter works for him after school, and his office is in a pretty nice part of town, because of a sweet deal on the lease, which came about because of some unsavory underhanded crap.

We follow King through at first seems to be a somewhat routine set of investigations for a private investigator. But, soon, he becomes embroiled in the case of a radical black journalist, enigmatically named A Free Man. He’s in jail, on death row, for killing cops—irony.

Through his investigations, King becomes more and more convinced that while A Free Man did kill those cops, they were part of a corrupt ring of bad cops. A Free Man was protecting kids from these dirty cops who were into drugs and prostitution—you know the classics. Furthermore, King comes to believe that this same group of police might be the ones that framed him when he apparently came to close to busting a racket of theirs a decade ago.

Since he can’t trust anyone on the right side of the law, King turns to an acquaintance, who is a former career crook turned watchmaker—who still dabbles on the wrong side of the law—to help him in his quest to exonerate A Free Man and hopefully get himself reinstated.

As King and his psychopathic watchmaker, dig deeper though, it becomes obvious that they don’t ever stand a real chance of exonerating A Free Man. This is when the other shoe drops, and Gladstone, King’s oldest cop friend, visits him, unannounced at King’s safehouse nobody is supposed to know about, and it turns out Gladstone was the one who betrayed King all those years ago and got him set up in the first place. Gladstone, tells King he did it to save King’s life, they were friends; after all, the other corrupt cops wanted to have him killed. He also lets King know that there is no chance he’s going to be reinstated and that the current ring of corrupt police, aren’t even the same guys for the most part, so there really isn’t anyone to take revenge on either.

After parting ways with his one-time friend, King has a revelation and figures out how to save A Free Man, and while he won’t get his badge back, he gets his cake and eats it too. It will come about in the form of if A Free Man gets away, who is a journalist, King can cause maximum damage to the corrupt police via exposure. He takes the bribe, from the corrupt cops to stop snooping around, uses a connection with a rich acquaintance to charter a flight out of the States, and has the A Free Man’s lawyer set up several in-person meetings in one day. Then King and his career criminal sidekick, slip A Free Man a low-grade poison through one of his visitors that King had the lawyer set up. In the confusion of a medical emergency, King and his assistant kidnap the prisoner when he’s knocked out, get him to the private jet, and fly him to Panama City.            

In the end, King returns to life being a somewhat wealthier private detective and is overall more content with life, now understanding how the game is played. He even finds it in him to sort of forgive Gladstone.  


Like any noir, since time immemorial, “Down the River unto the Sea” sees its protagonist living day-by-day perpetually chasing that next dollar—scraping by in a hardscrabble world. It’s equal parts nostalgia of gone by times, with Jazz references to figures like Thelonious Monk, and social commentary of justice in the modern world. Walter Mosley isn’t an author who is afraid to play with the theme that justice, and law and order, aren’t necessarily synonymous ideals. 

The actual title puzzled me since the novel doesn’t have much of anything to do with rivers or seas until I started researching it for this review. Now it makes perfect sense, and I feel a little stupid for having not got it sooner. The “down the river” part of the title surely represents the phrase “sold down the river.” Any guesses when that idiom came into vogue? Slavery days, when black people were sold down to plantations, moreover it means unimaginable betrayal. The “unto the sea” part is a little harder to parse, and the way I see it, it could say something positive or negative. It could be a hint about the ending of the novel, where King bucks the system and its corruption by taking bribe money and helping A Free Man to escape across the sea, figuratively. It could also represent the sad reality that slaves first experiences of the new world where to be kidnapped, chained to a deck on a ship, and sent across the sea. Like the actual book, it’s the title of, I feel like it’s intentionally supposed to be a bit of a mystery. 

Parting thoughts:

So this is obviously a tense time in history, with the pandemic and protests against police brutality, which in part is why I chose this book for this week. Walter Mosley is the kind of author that isn’t afraid to show, through his fiction, that the system is broken—in more ways than one. That for people of color, participating with a system that routinely plays by different rules depending on skin tone is frustrating, and often tragically fatal. Real-world problems and issues aren’t easy to answer or figure out what is the correct response. I agree with the idea that not to point out, and not to object, and to fail to resist against a biased system is in itself wrong. 

There is a group of people when they hear the term “black lives matter” they respond with “well shouldn’t all lives matter.” On the face of it, yeah, clearly, “all lives matter,” and if you don’t think so—you’re a monster—but that isn’t what is being debated here. When someone says “all lives matter” in response to “black lives matter” they’re assuming there is more to that phrase that isn’t being said, that what is really being said is “black lives matter more than all other lives” or “black lives matter, and no others matter,” which is bullshit. All that black people are saying is, “I have a life, just like you, and that life matters.”  To put it another way, just because I say “I have an apple” doesn’t imply anything about you having an apple or the worth of said apple. 

Venturing into the realm of who owes what to who and for what—this is where strife happens. I believe if you take an objective look statistically per capita of the advantages and disadvantages socio-economically across the various races, you’d be deluding yourself if you thought equality had been reached. You would also be wrong to conclude that being white is somehow at the bottom of the bunch. What the answers to these issues might be is beyond me. 

Still, I believe wisdom begins with less shouting at each other and more listening and being willing to listen and making an honest attempt at understanding each other’s feelings. And finally, accepting that perfect understanding is impossible, but that doesn’t mean that the effort is in vain. I intellectually understand that being a black man or woman in America is often difficult, and often unfair. It is also essential for me, and any other white person, to remember that we will never truly understand what it is to be one of those people, to have their lived experiences. I find, and suspect other people also find, those limitations in the capacity to understand completely are uncomfortable, and they apply to everyone. Just because you don’t fully understand something—isn’t proof that it doesn’t exist or isn’t valid.      

1 comment:

  1. thank you. Kevin. for your excellent and thought-provoking comments!