This review ran in the June issue of The Strand.
Down the River Unto the Sea
By Walter Mosley
New York: Mulholland, 2018. $27.00
A man seeking justice after he's been wrongly accused and imprisoned is a time-honored story line, with revenge savored deeply in classics such as The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) and other novels. In Walter Mosley's new stand-alone, Down the River Unto the Sea, the damage done to the protagonist, Detective First Class Joe King Oliver, is nearly as horrifying as what happens to Edmond Dantès at Château d'If.
King is a shrewd and resourceful investigator with the NYPD, but he isn't perfect--and someone knows it all too well. Playing on his weakness for women, a trap is set, and after a fling with a "modern day Tallulah Bankhead, with the husky voice, quick wit, and that certain something," the married King is arrested for assault. In his first thirty-nine hours in the Rikers Island Jail, King is attacked by four convicts, but that's just a warm-up for what the guards have in store for him.
The charges are dropped, but King's marriage and career are over. He's a broken man who needs years to rebuild himself back up to the point where he's strong enough to become a private investigator, with his loyal teenage daughter running the front office. To King's shock, a letter arrives in the mail one day from "Tallulah," now a born-again Christian living in Minnesota. She admits, "I was forced to entrap you," and asks for forgiveness. At about the same time, King gets a new case to investigate: a radical black journalist accused of killing two corrupt off-duty cops. As these two threads intertwine, King finds himself threatened and hunted by those willing to kill to keep their secrets hidden. No matter the danger, though, he's driven forward.
Hidden enemies emerge from King's past, but so do allies, none more memorable than Melquarth Frost, "the most dangerous criminal I had ever come across," a man who is determined to help King in his hour of need. In Mosley's skilled hands, Frost is a ruthless murderer, yes, but the harrowing pain that formed his pathology is made plain, and Frost's every moment in the novel is vivid. Throughout the book, those who have been abused and broken are described with clear-eyed compassion. Theirs is a gritty and sad world, but Mosley's poetic descriptions of New York City and his character's deepest souls elevate the story to beauty. Although the characters, major and minor, are all compelling, in the end it is King's story to tell, as he struggles to decide how much he's willing to risk to get the truth. As Mosley writes, "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." --Nancy Bilyeau