Walter Mosley examines issues of race in ‘Down the River’
“Down the River Unto the Sea” (Mulholland Books), by Walter Mosley
Few mystery writers can examine issues of race — how it divides and binds people — as clearly and unflinchingly as Walter Mosley, who returns to this theme in his stand-alone novel “Down the River Unto the Sea.”
Racism, corruption and injustice flow well in this novel, which introduces former NYPD Detective Joe King Oliver, now the owner-operator of King Detective Service in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of New York City. King, as he prefers to be called, spent several months in jail on phony assault charges before the case was dropped without an explanation. That was 13 years ago, and the arrest ended his police career and his marriage. It also “broke” him because of the frequent beatings and violence he endured from other prisoners and guards while in jail. Except for his 17-year-old daughter, Aja-Denise, he lives an isolated life. “Human connection only reminded me of what I could lose,” he says.
King is jolted when he receives a letter from the woman who accused him of assault, saying that crooked cops forced her to bring the charges. King wasn’t a popular detective, but doesn’t know what he did to incur such hatred. He’s barely begun to look into what happened to him when he is asked to look into the case of A Free Man, the name militant journalist Leonard Compton calls himself. Compton is on death row for shooting two police officers though he claimed it was self-defense.
King’s investigations take him on a journey to underground bars — the kind that need a password — after-hours nightclubs and remote diners. Along the way, he unleashes a maelstrom of violence. He’s helped by Melquarth Frost, a vicious career criminal who hasn’t forgotten that King once saved his life.
Examining how discrimination and prejudice affects African-Americans is right in Mosley’s wheelhouse. The author doesn’t miss a beat weaving this into the gritty plot of “Down the River Unto the Sea.”
While the plot soars, King doesn’t land as completely formed. Mosley’s Easy Rawlins ruled “Devil in a Blue Dress” from the first page; Leonid McGill, Fearless Jones and Socrates Fortlow were also memorable. King needs a bit more sculpting before he reaches the level of Mosley’s other characters.