Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley
Step aside for a moment, Easy Rawlings: there is a new gumshoe in town, and he is out to do the right thing even if it might involve doing the wrong thing. Joe King Oliver, hero of Walter Mosley’s Down the River Unto the Sea, is a complicated, conflicted human being whose heart is finally in the right place. (It is significant that the novel’s dedication is to “Malcolm, Medgar, and Martin,” three persons who also fought for what’s right.)
Joe King Oliver was named for the great jazz cornet musician (1881-1938). In his early days, Oliver (the character) preferred “the smooth riffs of the earlier musicians” until his false imprisonment on trumped up-charges. Afterwards, he identified with Thelonious Monk, “the madman in the corner pounding out the truth between the fabrications of rhythm and blues.” Oliver was an upright detective of distinction who would not let police corruption slide by, corruption like the bogus rape charge that placed him in the notorious Rikers Island jail as the story opens. Since Reagan “busted the unions, [politicians] all get made, paid, and laid out of the pockets of men like me.” Police “unions,” it seems, have not been busted.
Now, Oliver operates a private detective agency. Filled with anger, he is on a quest to discover who framed him for rape and destroyed his career as a detective and to learn why an effort to free a radical black journalist serving a life sentence for an admitted killing has suddenly been dropped. Mosley weaves these two apparently unconnected events into a scintillating story of crime and corruption. Underlying everything is the difficulty of knowing who among Oliver’s contacts he can trust.
Mosley’s characters are memorable and fully realized. Aja, “pronounced like the continent,” is a smart high school student who owes Oliver more than she does her mother and new stepfather. She helps in his office after school. Melquarth Frost, named after Satan, is one of the most malevolent criminals ever created, but he is a man of honor toward Oliver, who refused to lie in one of Frost’s court appearances. Effie Stoller, “Five three with fifteen pounds over what her physician would have called a perfect weight,” owes Oliver for helping her in her days as a prostitute. She is the one person who can calm the demons that remain in him.
Oliver says, “I like detective novels. The dick is either smarter, braver, or just luckier than his nemesis… The literary PI usually takes on one case at a time and he stays on the trail until it is solved, whether or not justice is served. Sometimes I liked to pretend I was a detective out of a book.” This almost conventional basis for a fictional detective takes on substance under the able pen of Mosley: “When I got moving, time congealed around me like amber over a mosquito that had taken a small misstep.”
Walter Mosley is a giant among writers, worthy of inclusion in any discussion of the medium’s best. His grasp of believable dialogue, his evocation of time and place, character development, and perfectly paced plots stand out in any appraisal of first-class writing. Beyond that, his stories are thoughtful commentaries—never losing that critical entertainment value—on life as we live it today, whether writing about institutionalized racism, police brutality, political corruption, or the daily interactions between individuals or societal segments. Remarkably, while making very pointed arguments within the context of his stories, Mosley’s writing never comes across as polemical: he just shows us the way it is for his characters.