Down the River unto the Sea is Walter Mosley’s latest crime mystery novel. The protagonist Joe King Oliver is an ex-police officer turned private investigator. The circumstances of his life—framed by a corrupt cop colleague, forced to serve years in prison, abandoned by his wife, harried constantly as black man in a white man’s world—create a complex character full of anger, but also love. King’s daughter helps him run the detective agency and is his main motivation for living. The drama of the story revolves around King taking advantage of a surprise opportunity to uncover the cops that framed him and also give succor to a radical black journalist accused of killing an on-duty police officer. The ending is uplifting and surprising, not to be missed.
Joe King Oliver is not one of Mosley’s most memorable characters. He pales in some ways when compared to unforgettable ones like Easy Rawlins, Mouse, Mama Jo, or Leonid McGill. He has a fascinating background story and an active, insightful inner voice but somehow he is not as gripping as Easy and the others. Maybe this is just a matter of familiarity and time to develop, as these figures I mention have appeared in multiple novels. Even still, through Joe King Oliver Mosley is able to make critical comments about the nature of core black culture, African American experience, the U.S. American race problem, and so on. This subtle, skillful analysis is my favorite aspect of the book, along with the satisfying end.
My least favorite aspect of the book is the slightly generic quality of the protagonist in comparison to other Mosley characters. If I could change anything about this book I might liven him up somehow and add more interesting supporting characters to accompany him on his adventure. Joe King Oliver needs more satisfying companion characters, maybe a crazy violent one like Mouse or a spiritual advisor like Mama Jo, both from Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series. I would definitely recommend this book though. It is ideal for Mosley fans, but also for lovers of the modern hard-boiled detective novel, or any reader interested in dynamic prose and astute reflections about life and love, and about U.S. American and world society/culture from an African American male perspective.
Here’s a short passage I like from the start of the book:
“My particular problem with women was, at one time, my desire for them. It didn’t take but a smile and wink for me, Detective First Class Joe King Oliver, to walk away from my duties and promises, vows and common sense, for something, or just the promise of something, that was as transient as a stiff breeze, a good beer, or a street that couldn’t maintain its population (4).”