Down the River Unto the Sea
Mulholland Books, February 2018
From the publisher: Joe King Oliver was one of the NYPD’s finest investigators until, dispatched to arrest a well-heeled car thief, he was framed for assault by his enemies within the force, a charge that landed him at Rikers. A decade later, King is a private detective, running his agency with the help of his teenage daughter. Broken by the brutality he suffered and committed in equal measure behind bars, King leads a solitary life, his work and his daughter the only lights. When King receives a letter from a woman who admits she was paid to frame him years ago, he decides to take his own case: finding out who on the force wanted him disposed of – – and why. As King embarks on his quest for the justice he was denied, he agrees to help a radical black journalist accused of killing two on-duty officers who had been abusing their badges to traffic in drugs and prostitutes in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The two cases intertwine across the years, exposing a pattern of corruption and brutality wielded against the black men, women and children whose lives the law destroyed. To solve them, King must outrun dirty cops, outsmart craven lawyers, and above all protect his daughter from the underworld in which he works. All the while, two lives hang in the balance: King’s client’s and his own.
Our protagonist’s memories of his early/earlier years are mostly painful: “the apartment building where I lived with my mother, brother, and sister after our father was sentenced and before I was old enough to run away.” More recently, the memories are of his days incarcerated in Rikers: “I’d been at Rikers for only thirtynine hours and already four convicts had attacked me. There was a white adhesive bandage holding together the open flesh on my right cheek.” He thinks: “Just a few days and I’d switched allegiances from cop to criminal. I thought that was the worst thing . . . but I was wrong . . . It’s a terrible fall when you find yourself grateful to be put in segregation.” When he is, unexpectedly, released after about 3 months, he is allowed to shower and shave and “I saw my face for the first time in months in the polished steel mirror next to the small shower where I cleaned up. Shaving revealed the vicious gaping scar down the right of my face. They didn’t always offer stitches at Rikers.”
That experience colors everything that follows in this fascinating and, at times, horrifying novel from Walter Mosley, whose writing is always riveting. At this point in his life, the brightest and most beloved thing in Joe’s life is his 17-year-old daughter, Aja-Denise, who is equally devoted to him. Her mother, now Joe’s ex-wife, has remarried, but Joe is closer to Aja than ever; she helps him run his detective agency, where he is determined to find out who framed him. His daughter’s latest endeavor is to attend “a special school in this Bronx church where good science students teach at-risk kids how scientists do experiments.” Obviously, Joe couldn’t be more proud of her.
The author’s descriptions of his supporting players are always wonderful and fully descriptive, including Joe’s elderly grandmother and her boyfriend of the day, a man worth eight hundred seventy-nine billion dollars, described as a gun enthusiast and a pacifist too. His investigation brings him to a meeting with a man who “weighed well north of four hundred pounds. He could have willed his face to be sewn into a basketball after he died; it was that large and round,” and describes himself as “a man who didn’t even trust his own clients, a man who had experienced betrayal on almost every level.” When his “visage was still too cop-like,” he undertakes some small superficial changes till “the transformation was now complete. Rather than a Cro-Magnon cop I was a Neanderthal nerd.” I will leave it to the reader to discover all the other joys of Mr. Mosley’s writing for him/herself. The book is everything one has learned to expect from this author, and it is highly recommended.
Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2018.