Walter Mosley, “Down the River unto the Sea”

Cue the mournful saxophone. Sink down into Walter Mosley’s boiled-clean prose. And get to know a new protagonist in Mosley’s ever-growing stable, former New York cop turned private detective Joe King Oliver.

Yes, the cop-turned-P.I. bit is an old one in crime fiction, but King’s career switch wasn’t a matter of turning in the badge one day and hanging out a shingle the next.

King spent time at Rikers—rough time. He emerges a changed man. Why was Joe King Oliver in prison? Because he was framed.

And soon the King Detective Agency (Joe King and his daughter, Aja-Denise) gets two cases. One is his own—and that’s because a key witness in the case that led to his time in Rikers wants to atone for her false testimony. And there’s also a black militant journalist on death row who had been arrested, three years prior, for killing two police officers. The man is Leonard Compton but goes by the moniker A Free Man.

King still bleeds blue, at least a little. Should he take a case to help an alleged cop killer go free? “I still considered myself a cop. In my days on the force I’d been sucker-punched, spit on, shot at, and singled out by a thousand videophones. Every time I’d make an arrest the community seemed to come out against me. They had no idea how much we care about them, their lives.”

Was A Free Man wrongly accused? King knows his own story, so isn’t it at least possible? “I knew that three 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.”

Free the guy known as A Free Man, King thinks, and he might be able to free himself.


There’s a thematic connection to both cases and King Oliver (named for Louis Armstrong’s mentor) pursues leads and conversations and sources where the trail leads, often involving long walks or putting around in his Italian-made Bianchina, “a microcar that’s so small it almost brings its own parking place with it.”

King is a brooder. He has experienced betrayal on every level. He knows good food. He’s got a wary eye on his daughter (who is a terrific character). He’s a dedicated reader and he knows his jazz. He’s partial to Thelonius Monk. “Monk always had a good group of talented musicians with him, but while they played deep melodies, he was the madman in the corner pounding out the truth between the fabrications of rhythm and blues.”  King keenly accounts for the endless variety of skin tones in New York’s endless sea of humanity. He deploys disguises and ends up in gleaming offices and the darkest holes of New York City.

Shot through with keen observations about race and class, and carried along on Mosley’s smooth prose, Down the River unto the Sea never gets ahead of itself. The pace is steady. King walks and thinks and walks some more. King’s work is dogged, but its never so frenetic that he can’t stop for a quick meal, sip a cognac, or whack the heavy bag at a boxing gym, even when he’s pretty sure he’s going to die.

King’s knowledge of inside prison workings comes in handy. He bounces back and forth between the two cases with a steady drumbeat. King starts to feel more and more like he’s regaining his old vigor. And we get the feeling that King will be back—he’ll be the guy in the corner pounding out the truth amid all the fabrications and outright lies.

One response to “Walter Mosley, “Down the River unto the Sea”

  1. Pingback: 2019: Top Books | Don't Need A Diagram

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