Down the River unto the Sea by Walter Mosley is the first book in a new series featuring Joe King Oliver, a disgraced former cop turned private detective in New York City (available February 20, 2018).
Walter Mosley writes with a voice that flows as easy as that river of the title, and he introduces a series character who is both familiar and new with his latest. Set in modern-day New York City, we meet disgraced cop turned detective Joe King Oliver, 10 years after a rape accusation on the job killed his career, put him in solitary in Riker’s for three months, and left him with ugly scars inside and out. Not an easy character to sympathize with. We get Joe’s side of the story first, and according to him, it was entirely consensual. But I wasn’t sure if Mosley was writing an unreliable narrator. Here’s a paragraph that encapsulates Joe King Oliver:
There was a chill in the morning air but I had my wind breaker on, a sweater beneath that. Pedestrian traffic was still pretty light at that time of day and the breezes can get a little stiff. The combination of solitude and cold somehow imparted the feeling of freedom; so much so that I was on the brink of laughter. I knew these emotions indicated an instability of mind but I didn’t care. A man can live his whole life following the rules set down by happenstance and the cash-coated bait of security-cosseted morality; an entire lifetime and in the end he wouldn’t have done one thing to be proud of.
By the end of Down the River unto the Sea, he will have done that one thing.
Joe isn’t your typical sad, hard-drinking detective. He works with his teenage daughter, Aja, and his love for her keeps him on the straight and narrow. He takes small jobs and gets by—with the usual conceits to make living in Manhattan affordable for fictional characters—but he’s good enough company that the sin is forgiven.
The case that shakes up his life is, of course, when a woman walks through his door; Willa Portman wants him to take on the case of exonerating a double cop killer on death row—a political activist who ran with the Blood Brothers, kind of a New York-style Black Panthers organization. Most of the original members have been killed or wounded under shady circumstances, and she thinks he was set up—just like Joe was. Her pro-bono lawyer has been scared off, and she has nowhere to turn. But with 19 thousand in cash, she can buy a lot of his time. Whether he’ll live to spend it is another matter.
Joe still thinks of himself as a cop, and taking on a cop-killer’s case sticks in his craw. But his world gets hit with an aftershock that helps change his mind. A message from his past suggesting he was set up. This puts him against the NYPD and other powerful forces, but he’s got plenty of friends on his side. One is a psychopathic killer genius named Melquarth, who takes a shine to him because he treated him right during an arrest. He’s no Mouse, but he’s interesting—if hard to believe.
“The modern law in the United States was based on economic class and what the popular opinion classified as evil,” Me said, answering my question. “She said in the modern world a man who beats his own head against the wall is crazy but the man who slams somebody else’s head is criminal.”
That’s Melquarth. The story may appeal to fans of Andrew Vachss as well as Mosley, as Joe has some of the paranoia of Burke, having seen what the system can do to you. He has a secret rope-ladder entrance to his office from his living quarters upstairs, a storage unit with a secret office, and disguises that he can use when things get too hot. Melquarth does his dirty work for him, keeping his hands clean when a suspect needs to be tortured, and Mel always keeps a syringe of knockout juice handy so he doesn’t have to kill after questioning. He even keeps a pistol loaded with rubber bullets so he can shoot police and not kill them. This reminded me of Flood, where Burke kept a .22 loaded with snake shot and magnesium rounds to scare someone into thinking they’d been capped while he made his getaway.
If you don’t go in expecting a story in the world of Easy Rawlins or Socrates Fortlow, it’s easier to swallow some of the gadgetry. The story gets pretty dark as Joe digs into the officers A Free Man killed and those who set him up. There’s an underground child-sex ring, a crypt full of rats to dispose of bodies, and plenty of corruption and money to keep the perpetrators protected, leaving Joe and Mel to find a way to set things right without getting Joe and his family killed.
That is no easy doing, but along the way, Joe befriends an octogenarian billionaire—and money can make anything happen, especially in New York City. It’s the place where such things always seem possible, but I had trouble believing a billionaire would live in a rest home—no matter how exclusive—and that Joe’s grandmother would also be there on a city pension. It felt like picking nits because Mosley is masterful with character, and we get a big crazy family of them in this one—from street junkies to prison wardens, colorful gangsters and beautiful actresses, a Manhattan menagerie to distract from the near-caper of a story.
In the end, it works. Today, we need a fairy-tale element to believe that anyone who follows the rules can do something to be proud of when confronted with grievous injustice. The machine seems so big that we need a cartoon psychopath who works on cuckoo clocks and a twitterpated billionaire on our side if we are to stand up to it. It brings some levity to a story about a good policeman torn down by the worst corruption, who can’t make things right but can do one good thing.
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Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which BookPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.”
Joyce Carol Oates calls him “a lovely kitty man.”