Joe “King” Oliver, the lead PI in Walter Mosley’s welcome new novel Down the River Unto the Sea, is a methodical man with a heck of a past. Once a renowned Detective First Class, King was set up by corrupt colleagues and shipped off to Rikers for a brutal stay that nearly broke him and cost him his marriage. Thirteen years later, King has a quiet PI business, a fine relationship with his seventeen-year-old daughter, and a dull brown Italian Bianchina microbar “so small it almost brings its own parking space with it.”
Life is fine.
But things heat up fast when two overlapping cases present themselves. Manny, a young schoolteacher turned revolutionary, discovers corrupt officers are running a drug and child prostitution ring out of an after-school facility, and he nearly gets himself killed organizing against them. After shooting two officers in self-defense, Manny finds himself on death row and his colleagues are suddenly missing, disabled, or victims of accidents.
At the same time a tip comes in regarding just who may have ordered the frame on King that landed him in Rikers. Presented with an opportunity to clear both his name and Manny’s, as well as confront the corrupt system that brought him down, King knows he’ll need a very specific partner to help him go after criminals this big. So he gambles and reaches out to the most dangerous criminal he ever encountered, a watchmaker with whom he regularly plays chess in Washington Square Park: Melquarth Frost, a man named after the devil.
An immensely entertaining novel, Down the River Unto the Sea is more than a fine hard-boiled mystery. Here Mosley confronts some of the largest issues in our country today, including institutionalized racism and the hard grip of loneliness that takes hold thanks to division and isolation. King is no saint, but he keeps his eye toward what is right and just. “The dollar is my master,” he says, “but I ain’t no slave.”
A welcome new work from one the American greats, Down the River Unto the Sea is not to be missed.