Jay MacDonald

Life, much like storytelling, tends to be linear: We’re born (characters); we live (plots); we conclude. But what fun could a mischievous author have by reversing that narrative? Rising star Chris Whitaker explores this possibility in We Begin at the End, an addictive flip on the small-town mystery, which begins when all is supposed to be said and done, in what would traditionally be a crime story’s aftermath.

In the California coastal village of Cape Haven, 13-year-old Duchess Day Radley is a self-proclaimed outlaw with a disheveled appearance, obscenity-rich rants and an obsession with protecting her 5-year-old brother, Robin, and their saloon-dancer single mom, Star. Thirty years ago, Star’s 7-year-old sister, Sissy, was murdered. The man who found her body, Walker, aka Walk, is now Cape Haven’s chief of police, while his best friend, Vincent King, is being released from prison after serving his sentence for Sissy’s murder, due in part to Walk’s testimony.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: We Begin at the End is great on audiobook, with narration from actor George Newbern.


Just as Duchess obsesses over Robin, Walk keeps a close eye on Duchess, knowing that Vincent’s return to Cape Haven could provoke the troubled teen. When a suspicious fire destroys the dingy nightclub where her mother performs, Duchess and Robin are whisked away to the Montana home of their grandparents, who reluctantly begin the difficult task of finding a workable foster home for the displaced siblings.

Meanwhile, Vincent’s return proves troublesome for Walk, who can’t figure out a way to make things right with the best friend he put in prison. The investigation into the nightclub torching and the subsequent suspicious behavior of club owner Dickie Darke serve to reunite Walk with his long-ago girlfriend Martha May, now a family lawyer.

As surprises surface, British writer Whitaker combines a brisk pace, a solid California voice and perhaps a record-setting cuss count. By the book’s end, you’ll want to begin at the end again.

Chris Whitaker combines a brisk pace, a solid California voice and perhaps a record-setting cuss count.

The somber, serious Scandinavian noir craze gets a much-needed kick in the funny bone with The Department of Sensitive Crimes, another laugh-out-loud series premiere from confirmed smart alec Alexander McCall Smith.

Most likely, you’ve known Alexander McCall Smith, the effervescent, Zimbabwe-born Scotsman (known as “Sandy”) through his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, one of the seven mystery series in his 50-plus bibliography. But what you haven’t seen is the first installment of his “Scandi-blanc” parody of Scandi-noir, in which a Malmö-based detective team led by Ulf “the Wolf” Varg investigates crimes that “you won’t find in the newspaper or on the ten o’clock news . . . unless it’s a particularly slow news day.”

Case in point: The three sensitive crimes featured herein include a market vendor who is stabbed in the back of the knee, a lonely young woman whose imaginary boyfriend goes missing and a nudist resort that’s apparently being plagued by werewolf howls. Challenging cases? Not exactly. But it’s the earnestness with which Varg’s equally eccentric team—made up of paper pusher Carl Holgersson, fly-fishing fanatic Erik Nykvist and Anna Bengsdotter, a married colleague who’s caught Varg’s eye—seeks to solve the unsolvable that keeps the laughs rolling.

McCall Smith, who has visited Sweden on numerous book tours, found a worthy foil for his notorious wit by watching dead-serious Scandi-noir TV programs, including “The Killing,” “The Bridge” and “Borgen,” at his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“The basic idea for doing Scandi-blanc came from the general enthusiasm that people have for the Scandinavian noir,” he says by phone from Edinburgh. “I loved the idea of really deflating the body count aspect of crime fiction, where everything is so ghastly that people are chopping one another to bits, as happens in real Scandinavian noir. That’s actually the fun—there are no bodies in these, [they’re] just really ridiculous. The only person who gets damaged is a person who get stabbed in the back of the knee! I took great pleasure in that, and the nudists and then of course the lycanthropy, the idea of someone turning into a wolf. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at these stock images of Scandinavian crime.”

Scandi-blanc also offered McCall Smith the opportunity to tap into the curious cultural link between Scotland and Scandinavia.

“It’s an interesting thing,” he says, “because we are neighbors of Norway most immediately, and there is quite a lot of feeling in Scotland that Scotland is quite Scandinavian. Bits of Scotland were parts of Scandinavia in the past, and of course the Vikings came and ran quite a bit of the north of Scotland.”

Like many crime fiction fans who immerse themselves in the brutal, bloody world of Scandi-noir, McCall Smith was drawn into questions about the elements of Scandinavian culture that lead to these stories.

“There is a dark side to Sweden,” McCall Smith says. “Think about [Ingmar] Bergman films, those very intense films where everybody is looking very intense and agonized. There is that side of the typical Scandinavian approach to things. But Sweden is a very, very conformist society; they want consensus. It’s extremely important to them to all agree.”

McCall Smith also speaks to the “vein of melancholy” present in Scandinavian culture, which he explores through a plot thread of eccentric longing in The Department of Sensitive Crimes: Ulf’s unrequited passion for Anna, and the fact that it’s not completely clear whether Anna has a crush on Ulf or on his vintage light gray Saab. “ ‘The best part of any investigation with you, Ulf,’ she said dreamily, ‘is being in your car,’ ” McCall Smith writes.

“Yes, well, those unfulfilled romantic longings, that’s [a] poignant note,” McCall Smith says. “Ulf has an unrequited passion for a colleague, and he can’t do anything about it. That’s a good poignant. . . . There is quite a lot of brooding—brooding is the word.”

Ulf was originally created for a Twitter literary festival that invited authors “to write some stories that would be put out in tweets,” McCall Smith says. “A very weird way to read books—140–character chapters. I created for that a character called Ulf Varg and gave him a couple of really peculiar chapters. The whole story was about 500 words.” McCall Smith then went on to write a short story starring Ulf, published by his U.K. publisher, and now this full-length book. “I rather liked this Swedish detective and his deaf dog and his peculiar colleagues,” McCall Smith says.

Despite Ulf’s beginnings, there is one line this 70-year-old storyteller still refuses to cross: admitting modern technology into his clever tales. 

“In my Botswana books, and indeed in my Isabel Dalhousie books, nobody uses a cellphone. I think that cellphones and Google really make classic detective fiction very difficult because you can get the answer to most issues by going online,” McCall Smith says. “In a sense, modern success ruins surprise, ruins poignancy, ruins anguish, because it has so many solutions. It depersonalizes, and it takes out all the waiting and anticipation and uncertainty. How could anybody be long-lost in the modern world? Modern technology is incompatible with a good solid plot; it’s just blocked. These days, lots of technology takes the mystery out of life. It collapses time and insults the dignity of time.”

Although McCall Smith cranks out up to 3,000 words daily, he retains an unquenchable thirst for new adventures. This year, even as he celebrates more than two decades of his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (book 20, To the Land of Long Lost Friends, will publish this fall) and winds down his 44 Scotland Street series, he has not only introduced his Scandi-blanc breakthrough but also has another new release in the wings. The Second-Worst Restaurant in France, which continues the events of his romantic Italian countryside-set novel, My Italian Bulldozer (2016), is out this summer.

“It’s [about] a restaurant food writer by the name of Paul Stuart,” McCall Smith explains. “In My Italian Bulldozer, he goes to Italy and has difficulty with the rental car company and ends up renting a bulldozer, and has great fun with that.” The comic sequel finds Paul on holiday in France, where his story tangles with that of a local restaurant.

Fortunately for readers, if the past can predict the future, humor will always be a part of McCall Smith’s work. “That’s what I get great pleasure from,” he says. “With The Department of Sensitive Crimes, I’m able to have fun and enjoy the humor, and also to have behind it a novel of ideas. So ideas come up, and they have real human issues and desires and longings and disappointments where you can actually make quite a few points that you might want to make about the world. I do enjoy that.”

The somber, serious Scandinavian noir craze gets a much-needed kick in the funny bone with The Department of Sensitive Crimes, another laugh-out-loud series premiere from confirmed smart alec Alexander McCall Smith.

Elly Griffiths puts a contemporary twist on classic gothic mysteries with The Stranger Diaries, an entertaining collision of spooks and modern manners set in a British high school.


English teacher Clare Cassidy is deeply troubled after the murder of fellow teacher and friend Ella Elphick. Ella’s death eerily mimics the plot of Clare’s favorite Victorian ghost story, “The Stranger,” by author R.M. Holland, whose historic home remains a landmark on the school’s campus. When Clare seeks solace in her daily diary, she finds a chilling message written by another hand: “Hallo, Clare. You don’t know me.” When another teacher is found slain, this time inside the notorious Holland House, Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur believes Clare is the link between the two deaths, prompting the teacher and her teenage daughter, Georgia, to flee Sussex on a sleeper train to Scotland.

Griffiths, the bestselling author of the Ruth Galloway and Magic Men mystery series, wisely chose to set her first standalone mystery on a campus similar to West Dean College in West Sussex, where she teaches creative writing.

“I love gothic fiction and Victorian stuff, but I wanted to set the book somewhere very everyday as well, somewhere that can bridge the everyday and the more spooky and surreal,” she explains by phone from her home in Brighton. “That’s why I chose an ordinary school.” 

Every gothic tale needs a creepy building, and the mysterious Holland House—which is rumored to be the site of a murder at Holland’s own hand—has its roots in two vintage homes from Griffiths’ life, one an art patron’s home that now houses part of West Dean College, the other on the grounds where Griffiths attended secondary school in Sussex. “It happened to be in a very old building that was meant to be haunted,” she says. “And being a Catholic school, it was of course haunted by a spooky nun.”

Much like the presence of an ominous manor, the diary has a notable history in gothic fiction. Consider The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, in which Count Fosco reads Marian Halcombe’s diary and then writes in it. It’s a singular betrayal, a breach of an intimate space—and a clear inspiration for The Stranger Diaries. Griffiths, who has kept a diary since she was 11, admits that her ongoing fascination with the practice provided the tool that knit her mystery together with alternating first-person narration from Clare, Georgia and DS Kaur. 

“Why do people keep diaries?” the author says. “I mean, I’d invite anyone to read mine, but then, why am I doing it? Sometimes I’ll put in a little quote and put in little brackets—King Lear, Act 1, Scene 5—and I think, why am I doing that? Who cares? You’re documenting your life for some particular reason.”

These traditional elements place The Stranger Diaries firmly among the finest of modern gothic—but much of the narrative charm that sets Griffiths’ novel apart comes from Georgia’s chapters, which feature a teenager’s often-overlooked wisdom. Griffiths credits this voice to her twin son and daughter, now 20.

“I do remember that feeling as a teenager [when adults] don’t really ask your opinion,” she says. “[Georgia’s] working things out ahead, and maybe some things she hasn’t got quite straight, but she certainly does have a view that they should be listening to. I really like Georgia, and I do feel we should listen to teenagers a bit more, because they do have this wonderful ability to observe things. Quite often my kids have said things and I’ll think, oh my gosh, they’re exactly right! I should have asked them before about that!” 

As for Griffiths, who will release her first YA novel, A Girl Called Justice, this fall in the UK, weaving mysteries began at a very early age.

“I wrote a full-length mystery when I was 11,” she says. “It was called The Hair of the Dog, and it was a mystery set in a village in Sussex. It’s lost—my mom kept it for ages, and I’ve still got the beginning of it. Then when I was at secondary school, I used to write little episodes of ‘Starsky & Hutch’ that would be passed around in class, and kids would read them. And because I quite often used to kill Starsky or Hutch (’cause what can you do, really?), I remember that people would cry from them and be upset, and I suppose there was a moment when I realized, oh, you can do that with words.”

After earning a master’s degree in Victorian literature, Griffiths went to work in publishing at HarperCollins and ended up as an editorial director for children’s fiction. While on maternity leave, she wrote her first book, a memoir about her Italian immigrant father. After four more books written under her real name, Domenica de Rosa, she transitioned into crime fiction. “My then-agent said, ‘Oh, you need a crime name.’ So that’s how I became Elly Griffiths.”

Are we likely to revisit the academic world of The Stranger Diaries in a sequel? Maybe yes, at least in part.

“I really had meant it to be a standalone,” Griffiths says. “I think that was very liberating as well, because I was in this quite long-running series with Ruth Galloway, 10 books and the 11th coming up [The Stone Circle], and you’re writing a lot of books about specific characters, and you’ve got them into terrible complicated relationships by now. So I haven’t meant for there to be another [series]. Having said that, I did like the detective, Harbinder, and I could see that she might come into another book, maybe a different sort of book. . . . She felt like a cat you could write a bit more about.”

Elly Griffiths puts a contemporary twist on classic gothic mysteries with The Stranger Diaries, an entertaining collision of spooks and modern manners set in a British high school.

The year is 1921, the start of Prohibition. Mafia runaway Alice “Nobody” James has escaped trouble in Harlem by traveling cross-country by train while bleeding from a bullet wound. Max, a black porter, intervenes and checks the white Alice into the Paragon Hotel in Portland, Oregon. The hotel is an exclusively African-American sanctuary in a segregated city under siege by the Ku Klux Klan. There, Alice meets a host of compatriots who soon become like family as they bond together to search for one of their own, a biracial boy they fear may have fallen into the hands of the Klan. 

With her sixth novel, stage actress-turned-novelist Faye, known for her Edgar-nominated Jane Eyre spoof Jane Steele, offers a surprising historical mystery that addresses America’s sexism, racism and anti-immigrant white power movements. 

“I always write about something that’s pissing me off right now,” Faye says by phone from her New York home. “I find parallels to what was happening a very long time ago, because I don’t think anybody would be particularly interested if I just stood on a soapbox and said, ‘Racism is bad.’ But if I can set stories in other time periods, it’s sort of like Shakespeare setting Macbeth out of town: ‘Don’t get confused, this is not about you—this is those Scottish guys!’”

Alice’s escape to Portland allows Faye to write about a piece of history that she has long hoped to ponder in fiction. Born in San Jose, California, Faye moved with her family to Longview, Washington, a small town close to Portland, when she was 6 and remained there for 12 years. The move from her racially diverse San Jose birthplace to the predominantly white Longview revealed to Faye a dark section of American history—the Pacific Northwest’s deeply racist roots. The original Oregon settlers envisioned a utopia free from crime, poverty—and any nonwhite persons. Prior to statehood, any blacks who refused to leave the territory were sentenced to flogging every six months. In 1870, Oregon refused to ratify the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights to people of color, and didn’t correct this error until 1959. For black people, Oregon was hell with only a few havens. One of these was Portland’s Golden West Hotel, upon which the Paragon Hotel is based.

Along with exploring present-day social and cultural upheavals through a historical lens, The Paragon Hotel also allowed Faye to re-create the spoken language of 1921, both in Harlem and Portland. Faye proudly admits to having a passion for historical accuracy.

“That’s why this is a love letter. It’s very much not just a quest for identity but a quest to actually love that identity.”

“Slang is very, very much a part of my research process,” she says. “If you’re just looking through the boilerplate slang of the 1920s, you’re going to be finding a lot of words that didn’t really come into vogue until 1925, -6, -7. That was really the height of the flapper era, and I was not interested in those words; I was only interested in how you spoke in 1921.”

Lacking a lexicon embedded in the arts and music of the pre-flapper era, Faye struggled until she stumbled upon an unlikely helping hand from someone who also knew how to sling the slang. “I was at a loss for quite some time,” she says, “until I attended a writer’s residency for a month down in Key West, Florida. There is tons of stuff from Hemingway down there for obvious reasons, and I found a huge volume with all of his [World War I] war correspondence.” She explains that a large percentage of the slang in The Paragon Hotel comes straight out of Hemingway’s 1918 letters.

Faye also credits her own years on stage with giving her the ear to recognize slang and use it effectively in her fiction. “I’ve never taken a creative writing class,” she says. “I was trained as an actor and worked as a professional stage actor for 10 years, and I was also trained as a singer, and there’s a real lilt in the ’20s stuff. I think that the rhythm of it is almost as important as some of the words. Even where they’re talking about very serious things, there’s this glib overtone to where they’re even replacing words with almost nonsense words. It’s fascinating.”

To voice the Portland perspective, Faye created Blossom Fontaine, the Paragon’s residential club chanteuse, whose sultry, outgoing stage personality belies the inner turmoil and discomfort she and many of her friends feel about America’s history of racism and sexism.

“In the case of Blossom, whose life has been defined by what society says, the question of who she is has been so important her whole life that when she meets Nobody, who has been taking advantage of hiding in plain sight, it’s such an asset to her,” Faye says. “Nobody lived in such a dangerous environment that she didn’t spend a lot of time really sitting down and defining herself. Blossom, on the other hand, has been so assertive and determined about who she is and so locked into a system. You’ve got two women who are coming at it from completely different directions. That’s why this is a love letter. It’s very much not just a quest for identity but a quest to actually love that identity.”

Will we see a sequel to The Paragon Hotel?

“I would love to say yes, but I never really know. So far, this is a standalone, but I wouldn’t rule it out,” Faye replies. “However, at the moment, what I’m working on is turning Hamlet into a modern-day crime novel. The working title? The King of Infinite Space. I’m very excited about it.”

 

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Anna Ty.

With her sixth novel, stage actress-turned-novelist Faye, known for her Edgar-nominated Jane Eyre spoof Jane Steele, offers a surprising historical mystery that addresses America’s sexism, racism and anti-immigrant white power movements. 

Just after 11 a.m. on a bright spring morning, wealthy widow Diana Cowper waltzes into the London funeral home of Cornwallis and Sons to plan her own funeral service. Six hours later, she’s found strangled to death in her terraced Chelsea home.

Who arranges their final bow and then gets killed the same day? Baffled, the police turn to Daniel Hawthorne, a disgraced yet brilliant investigator whose uncanny detective skills are matched only by his mysterious past.

It’s tempting to wade into these first few pages of The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz, author of last year’s bestselling Magpie Murders and a BAFTA-winning screenwriter (“Foyle’s War,” “Midsomer Murders”), thinking that you’re about to enjoy a loving homage to the classic British mysteries of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. Then comes Horowitz’s inventive twist: The inscrutable Hawthorne enlists an author whose name happens to be Anthony Horowitz to join him as he probes the case and then to write a book about it, splitting the profits. And voila: This Holmes has his Watson, this Hastings his Poirot.

This literary technique, known as self-insertion, would prove problematic for most novelists. But for Horowitz, stepping into his own tale as first-person narrator allows him to introduce both an unorthodox reader relationship and an additional storyline—and a fun one at that.

“When my publishers asked me to do a series of murder mysteries, my first thought was, how do I do something that hasn’t been done before?” Horowitz says by phone from London. “I began to consider: Could I change the entire format, not only as another way to explore it but to enhance it? So I suddenly had this idea that if I became the narrator, everything changes. Instead of being on the mountain, seeing everything and knowing everything, I’m now in the valley, seeing nothing and knowing nothing. That suddenly struck me as fun—the author never knowing the ending of his own book.”

Once he found his (own) voice, The Word Is Murder took on the high-velocity twists and turns one would expect from a writer who has been wholly consumed with the conventions of classic murder mysteries since childhood. (As an upper-crust kid, Horowitz battled prep school bullies by reading golden age mysteries aloud.) Looking for suspects with possible motives, our oddly matched detectives visit the English seaside town of Dean, where 10 years prior, Cowper had struck two twin boys with her car, killing one and seriously disabling the other. She was charged but released without penalty, which leads Hawthorne and Horowitz down a trail of suspects, including the boys’ parents. Meanwhile, Cowper’s grown son, Damian, an actor whose rising star prompted a move to Hollywood, provides another lead that bears exploring. As does Raymond Clunes, a theater producer whose recent flop cost Cowper her investment in his theater troupe.

Central throughout is Hawthorne, an enigmatic hero who is also a blunt, brutal hothead. The self-insertion twist allows readers to enjoy Hawthorne and Horowitz as they bicker and brainstorm, but it also keeps this classic tale grounded in the 21st century, thanks to Horowitz’s brief asides on social media, Tintin screen production meetings with Stephen Spielberg and occasional conversations with his wife, Jill Green, who is also the producer of “Foyle’s War” and the upcoming TV adaptation of Magpie Murders.

“The whole business of being a writer is almost as weird as being a detective.”

“I’ve always loved books on writing, like William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, and I’ve always wanted to do this,” Horowitz says. “I even tried at one point to write a book about writing, but my problem was that it was rather dull and not really worth reading. So this is my attempt to hone in on it and make it part of the narrative. Because the whole business of being a writer is almost as weird as being a detective.”

Horowitz’s mix of personal fact and fiction within his narrative is already paying off in unexpected ways.

“The people in England have been looking on Google to see if they can work out how much of the book is true and how much of it isn’t,” he says. “And that’s exactly what I wanted the readers to do, in a way. That seems like a fun way to approach it.”

However, Horowitz admits it was a little awkward to insert his wife and two sons into a work of fiction.

“My wife and children were, to say the least, alarmed that they would wind up in my new book, and quite wary as to how they should be treated. . . . My wife did insist on a few changes to make her kinder. What a terrible admission about our relationship!” Horowitz laughs. “We’ve been married 30 years, so we know each other pretty well.”

At age 63, when some writers are dialing back their workload, Horowitz finds himself suddenly in high demand. In addition to his popular Alex Rider teen spy series, Horowitz has completed two Sherlock Holmes sequels, The House of Silk (2011) and Moriarty (2014). This November, he’s following up his James Bond spy thriller Trigger Mortis, which was commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate, with Forever and a Day. He’s also 30,000 words into a Hawthorne sequel, and he couldn’t be happier.

“The plan is to write 10 or 11 of these Hawthorne novels,” he says. “I have five books in my head already, so that just shows how quickly the ideas are coming. . . . Having been a kid’s author and a TV writer, now I want to be a murder mystery writer.”

To which I would humbly add: mission accomplished.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Jon Cartwright.

Just after 11 a.m. on a bright spring morning, wealthy widow Diana Cowper waltzes into the London funeral home of Cornwallis and Sons to plan her own funeral service. Six hours later, she’s found strangled to death in her terraced Chelsea home.

Taut, brutal and filled with author Walter Mosley’s trademark mix of imperfect winners and losers, Down the River Unto the Sea introduces a new hero: the complicated and endearing New York detective Joe King Oliver.

It’s a name that may catch the eye of Louis Armstrong fans: Band leader Joe “King” Oliver famously taught the jazz legend. Three pages into this fast-moving jazz solo of a noir, Mosley’s riffs on contemporary life will have you as hooked as Armstrong’s fans were on his mind-bending improvisations a century ago.

“To write about someone who has the name of Louis Armstrong’s mentor is . . . kind of wonderful. That was just fun,” Mosley says. “[Joe] may be around for a while, who knows.”

Sixty-six-year-old Mosley, who began writing at age 34, burst out of the gate with his 1990 Shamus Award-winning debut, Devil in a Blue Dress. Set in the Watts neighborhood in late-1940s Los Angeles and featuring the hard-drinking private eye Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, Devil also became a successful film featuring Denzel Washington as Easy and Don Cheadle as his sidekick, Mouse. The series, now 14 books deep, has worked its way to 1968 with Charcoal Joe, which was released in 2016.

Mosley readily admits his compelling and timeless examination of the African-American experience has benefited as much from timing as technique. “One of the bad things about America, and I benefit from it, is that whenever you’re telling a real story about a black person or a group of black people in America, it probably hasn’t been written,” Mosley says. “Easy Rawlins is that detective.”

However, Mosley says, “It’s not like it hasn’t been done.” He acknowledges his thematic contemporaries, Chester Himes, author of Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Ishmael Reed, author of The Last Days of Louisiana Red. “But Easy Rawlins was a new character, and Mouse was a new character, and Leonid McGill was a new character. It’s so interesting for me, writing these stories.”

And Joe is definitely a new character. On the inspiration behind Joe’s backstory, Mosley says, “There are so many conflicts between authority and people who have been disenfranchised in some way.” Mosley muses that Down the River Unto the Sea reflects a broad view of marginalized Americans. “How does one live in a world where half the people in prison are people of color, and they don’t represent nearly that percentage of the population?”

Recent conversations around racial prejudice in both the justice system and media inspired Mosley to create a character forced to walk between authority, as a detective and former police officer, and guilt, as a man falsely charged with sexual assault.

When we meet Joe King, he is depressed and ruminating on a host of conflicts in his sleepy PI agency. The former detective was one of the NYPD’s top investigators until he was dispatched to arrest an alluring car thief. When, much to Joe’s surprise, his investigation led to a sexual encounter with the woman in question, he found himself framed, arrested and sentenced to Rikers Island, where he spent nine months.

“Joe is a pretty good guy in a world that’s not quite up to his standards.”

In the decade since Joe’s near-fatal stay in Rikers Island, he has had to rebuild his life and reclaim his sexuality after it was used against him. Mosley explains, “For me, there is no conflict between wanting to do what’s right and having a healthy libido.”

The dark cloud surrounding Joe’s past begins to lift when he receives a mysterious card from the woman who ended his career. Suddenly, his worst suspicions are confirmed—the shadowy forces who moved so effectively to frame and nearly kill him intend to complete the job.

Mosley says,“Joe is a pretty good guy in a world that’s not quite up to his standards.” Once he discovers the truth, Joe vows to clear his name with the help of his teenage daughter and office assistant, Aja-Denise.

Long the creator of hard-boiled and hard-loving detectives, Mosley also admits that gender and equality issues have impacted character relationships in Down the River Unto the Sea.

One of those relationships is Joe’s loving—if sometimes misguided—bond with his daughter, who is grappling with her own issues even as Joe does his best to protect her from the cruel realities of the world. Mosley says, “The thing that he does right is, he loves her. And that’s what she needs.”

Joe’s quest for truth also involves his violent yet loyal partner, Melquarth “Mel” Frost, and an unexpected client—Frankie Figures, aka A Free Man, a black militant journalist condemned to death for killing two police officers under similarly suspect circumstances. According to A Free Man’s friends and followers, the journalist had discovered cops trafficking in drugs and prostitution in some of New York’s roughest neighborhoods.

As Joe begins to uncover what really happened, Mosley paints a complex portrait of law and order. “You’re living in a world that’s moving on, it’s leaving most people behind, and the thing to figure out is, what does that mean? Where are we going? And I don’t know.”

Assisted by Aja-Denise, Joe and Mel blaze through the boroughs, collecting clues from Mosley’s fully drawn and delightfully unlikely assemblage of characters, with two lives hanging in the balance.

With all the conspiracies, relationships and self-discovery lining the pages of Down the River Unto the Sea, Mosley admits enjoying a character willing to bend the rules.

“The mystery of it is inside Joe himself: What will he do? How does he solve—and fail to solve—these mysteries that he’s faced with?”

Readers will discover that Joe isn’t afraid to flout the norm. “I think it goes far out of the realm of the expected in the same way that Chester Himes does . . . because we feel trapped by rules. To be able to go beyond that trap is kind of wonderful to me.”

Mosley’s mysteries may belong on a shelf alongside Himes and Reed—but some critics argue differently. Mosley’s work has been drawn into an unlikely debate over whether he qualifies as a Jewish writer.

“There was a big online argument about whether or not I was a Jewish writer,” says Mosley, who explains that he is not religious. “My mother was Jewish, so I’m a Jewish writer. That looks fine. I was never going to get involved in that argument. It’s hard enough to write books. I save that for my novels.”

In addition to his daily writing routine, Mosley spends time in the writers’ room of director John Singleton’s FX series, “Snowfall,” and he’s also working on a new TV series based on his Leonid McGill books and developing a film version of his stand-alone The Man in My Basement with director William Oldroyd. Mosley also continues to tap his passion for jazz as he works on developing a musical based on Devil in a Blue Dress.

All this from a guy who considers himself a man out of time. “I’m very old fashioned,” Mosley muses, “certainly not of this century. . . . The way I approach writing goes back to the 19th century. I’ve published 55 books, and I’m still writing them. I have three yet to come out. That’s what I do. So if you want to know what I think, read the books.”

 

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Marcia Wilson.

Taut, brutal and filled with author Walter Mosley’s trademark mix of imperfect winners and losers, Down the River Unto the Sea introduces a new hero: the complicated and endearing New York detective Joe King Oliver.

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