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.