“Down The River Unto The Sea” by Walter Mosely, 2018
First, let me say that I loved this book. Down the River unto the Sea by Walter Mosely is a gripping noir with language that is, if not truly hard-boiled, at least overcooked – and I mean that in a good way. Our hero, Joe King Oliver, hereinafter referred to as King, is an ex NYPD officer who was pushed off the force after being set up for rape, and becomes a Private Eye. He does three months in Rikers for the rape before he is released without explanation, a brutal experience that changes him profoundly.
The plot follows two strands. The first is his search for who set him up for the rape and why, a question that although haunts him, he has put behind him. At least until the woman used for the set-up, Beatrice Summers, aka Nathali Malcolm sends him a letter confessing to the set-up and asking for the opportunity to make it right. She is newly reborn it seems. And since I mentioned the aka, I might as well get this off my chest right now. There are lots of characters in this book, and most have nicknames or aliases, and often more than one, so keeping track of who’s on first is real work. I kept listening for the program vendor, “programs, get your programs, can’t tell the players without a program,” as I was reading, but there’s never one around when you need one.
The second strand is an attempt to vindicate Leonard Compton, aka A Free Man, aka Free, aka Manny, (yah, right?) a civil rights warrior who is on death row for the murder of two policemen. This case is brought to him by a legal aid working for Free’s attorney, also a big name in the civil rights world, who has dropped the case without explanation coincident with the disappearance of a key witness. And, of course, there is a confluence where the two strands coalesce into one. The pace is quick, the action intense, and the resolution satisfying.
I have tried to make this essay of interest even if you haven’t read the book, and in fact, with the goal of making the book richer for you if you do eventually read it. But I don’t know how to write an essay about a book that doesn’t give away at least some of the plot, so if you are worried about spoilers, stop now, read the book, and then come back. For those of you reading on, I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.
Hard boiled fiction in general is about morality and the murky boundaries between right and wrong. Like Hammett’s Sam Spade and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, King breaks rules, laws even, but never his personal moral code. As a cop, King’s code was true to the law. In the opening chapter, he discusses how he got his office lease so cheap. His partner back when he was a cop, Gladstone Palmer, aka Glad, overlooked the landlord’s son’s brutal attack on a woman, “a woman whose only offense was to say no.” (3) As King reflects back, he tells us, “I would have tried to put Laiph in prison for the first assault, but that’s just me. Not everyone sees the rules the same. The law is a flexible thing – on both sides of the line – …” (4)
A few pages later he tells us he was the kind of cop that only lost his temper when he was threatened physically, “And even then I took no joy in beating him after he’d been subdued and restrained.”(7) We also learn about his weakness for women, “It didn’t take but a smile and a 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) See what I mean about not quite hard boiled? Moseley could have gone on about swaying hips, heaving breasts, pouting lips, and silk soft thighs, but even without these frivolities, the language retains a hard-boiled twang to it.
So, where was I? Oh yah, King. A liberal use of fists and guns, lines he will not cross, and a weakness for the ladies. It was one of those uncrossable lines that got him set up for rape and a three-month stint on the Island, and his weakness for the ladies that made the set-up work. This is where the story begins.
But before I dig into the meat of this essay there is another important example of King’s steadfastness concerning lines he will not cross. This was his refusal to manufacture testimony to put Melquarth Frost, a vicious gang leader and career criminal behind bars, as the prosecutor suggested he might do. “I could not, in good conscience, say anything but what I knew on the stand. I had determined early on in my career that as a cop I would always adhere to the letter and to the spirit of the law. Law for me was scripture.” (74)
Mel is acquitted and, recognizing that King is the only one who had ever treated him fairly, reaches out and they become friends. Not quite a sidekick, it is Mel’s ruthlessness, underworld connections, and loyalty that allows King to follow the strands, survive the process and move on to the happily ever after. Mel epitomizes the grey areas around right and wrong that are the heart of this book. Ok, on to the meat.
The title’s opening phrase, “Down the River,” is a relevant metaphor in this story, and when combined with the title’s ending phrase, “and Unto the Sea,” is an even more powerful metaphor. According to Wikipedia, the phrase, “Sold down the river,” refers to ‘problem causing slaves’ in northern slave states being sold to states further down the Mississippi or Ohio rivers where conditions were much harsher for them. The slaves on the auction block generally considered this a negative thing.
Over the years the phrase has come to represent betrayal or scapegoating, generally for the absolution or enrichment of a diabolical double-crosser. From the offending party’s point of view though, the act is often rationalized, and sometimes the rationalization is not without merit. Morality, like King’s visions of the law, is a flexible thing – on both sides of the line.
And for King – Warning: Spoiler Alert – the offending party is his former partner and best friend, Gladstone Palmer. In a nutshell, King was honing in on a heroin operation that, unbeknownst to him, involved dirty and ruthless cops, who were also involved in child trafficking. Glad, although not an active participant, took money to look away, as did others up to the highest levels of command. As King was getting close, a decision was made to kill him, a decision in which Glad intervened, cutting a deal to have him set up for rape and prison as an alternative.
As might be imagined, Rikers is not a cozy environment for a cop. Glad again intervened, first having put into solitary for protection and eventually convincing the powers to be to have him released. King’s career as a cop was over though, so Glad staked him to start his detective business including getting him the aforementioned office lease.
So is Glad a good friend or not. He did save King’s life after all. The powers all knew King’s position on the law, and that he would not be bought off. Murder for them was a routine thing. Glad did take corrupt money, but did he really have a choice? Turning that kind of thing down comes with its own set of consequences. Hum, let’s see, I can be rich or dead, what should I do? And King was going to be killed, that decision had been made. By orchestrating the set up did he betray him, or save him?
Oh, and just because I mentioned him before, – Spoiler Alert – A Free Man was on death row for killing the ringleaders of the child trafficking ring, in self-defense, as he tried to rescue a victim. His attorney, as described by the legal aid that brought the case to King, “is about to sell him down the stream.” (46) And we later learn that they are holding his daughter hostage to force him to do this. This is the confluence where the two strands come together.
Now, let’s look at the title in its entirety, “Down the River and Unto the Sea.” Thespiritualscientist.com cites the Upanishads as using the river-ocean metaphor to describe the ultimate union with God. “Just as the water of the Ganges flows naturally down toward the ocean, such devotional ecstasy, uninterrupted by any material condition, flows toward the Supreme Lord.” (note 1).
I love the term devotional ecstasy in the above quote. The river, like the forces of life, doesn’t hold anything back, it offers everything it has into its flow, it can’t do otherwise, and in the end, it merges to become one with the sea. As far as a title serving as a metaphor for a story, this is one of the best I can think of. King might have been sold downriver, but it is the irresistible forces of life that drive his journey, and in the end, the dirty cops and politicians are all dead or gone, A Free Man is free, he is vindicated, he knows the truth that has haunted him for a decade, and he is a peace with the world. We should all be so lucky to have our journeys end this way.
Read the book if you haven’t. You won’t regret it.
Note 1: thespiritualscientist.com/2013/06/what-does-the-metaphor-of-river-merging-into-the-ocean-actually-imply-does-it-support-impersonalism