Though Mosley has written over 30 novels, I’ve read only The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, a book I loved. His Easy Rawlins series has devoted followers so when the opportunity arose to read a new sample of Mosley’s detective fiction, I thought I’d take it. Though not unenjoyable, I found it unexceptional.
When Joe King Oliver was a New York police detective, he was framed for a sexual assault. While in Rikers, he experienced brutality and solitary confinement and emerged a damaged man. Eleven years later, he is a private investigator. After receiving a letter from a woman who admits to having been forced to entrap him, he decides to try and find out who betrayed him. As he seeks justice for himself, he also sets out to help A Free Man, a Black radical journalist, whom he sees as a victim of injustice like himself.
Oliver is an interesting enough character. His time in prison affected him dramatically; he was released with both physical and mental scars. He asserts that “It was in that stink that I became a murderer-in-waiting.” At different times he describes himself as a “creature formed by my imprisonment” and a “madman created by Rikers.” He wants to be exonerated and maybe even reinstated and he wants to remain on the right side of the law in his quest for justice, but that becomes increasingly difficult as his investigations progress. He realizes he needs help and ends up hiring a sociopath as a sidekick: “walking down those chilly autumn streets with a man so evil that no crime deterred him meant that I had taken the first steps on a different path.”
Oliver is a dynamic character capable of introspection and self-examination. The book opens with his identifying a major weakness; he speaks of his desire for women: “It didn’t take but a smile and wink for me . . . to walk away from duties and promises, vows and common sense.” He goes as far as to compare himself to a dog in his “fang-baring hunt lust.” Throughout the book he has a number of enlightening moments. For example, “I realized that I felt alone most of the time . . . I was alone because no one else seemed to know what was in my heart.” Later, when “propelled by forces [he] could not control,” he has another epiphany: “It occurred to me that my whole life had been organized around the guiding principle of being completely in charge of whatever I did. . . . The problem was that no man is an island; no man can control his fate. No woman either, or gnat or redwood tree.”
There is a large cast of secondary characters, some of whom come and go quickly, so it becomes difficult not to be confused. One character who is memorable is Melquarth Frost, Oliver’s sociopathic partner, who believes that “’People should break the law if it doesn’t suit them’” and that beating a person is a form of communication because “’Anything one man does that another man understands can be defined as language.’” The other character who made an impression on me is Aja-Denise, Oliver’s 17-year-old daughter, who works part-time as her father’s receptionist. Oliver’s love for his daughter is unquestionable (“If I had to spend the rest of my life in a moldy coffin buried under ten feet of concrete, with only polka music to listen to, I would have done that for her.”) and his interactions with her are highlights of the book.
The book examines the themes of corruption and justice. Corruption is so pervasive that one wonders if there is anyone who is innocent of its taint. The book emphasizes the extent to which people’s lives can be affected by corruption; Oliver was “beaten, scarred, disgraced, imprisoned, and had [his] marriage torn apart” but Burns and Miranda stand out as victims of corruption. Justice does not seem to exist much in the world Oliver exposes, but he decides to do what he can: “[A Free Man and I] would never receive justice from law enforcement or the courts and so the only thing that could be done was to take the law into our own hands.”
The novel is fast-paced and keeps the reader’s interest, though the identity of one of the individuals involved in framing Oliver is rather obvious. What becomes irritating is Oliver’s constantly keeping information from the reader. For example, he mentions enlisting someone’s aid in a plan he has formulated, but it is not until later that the nature of that aid is clarified. This is obviously a technique to create suspense but its repeated use becomes annoying. At one point, Oliver observes that “in order to truly be with somebody you have to be in their mind,” but he keeps the reader at a distance, revealing only some of what he is thinking. Perhaps this distance is the reason why I didn’t ever really feel connected with the protagonist.
I would certainly recommend this book but I wouldn’t describe it using superlatives.
Note: I received an eARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.