Book review of ‘Every Man a King,’ by Walter Mosley


When a PI novel is written noir and gritty, in the style of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Chester Himes, but without the tropes that have become cliched, you can bet the author is Walter Mosley. His new book, “Every Man a King,” reminds us why he is a master of the genre.

The title echoes Huey P. Long’s famous quote: “Every man a king, so there would be no such thing as a man or woman who did not have the necessities of life, who would not be dependent upon the whims and caprices and ipse dixit of the financial martyrs for a living.”

The issues of inequity, race, poverty, wealth and class are all here in prose and plot, animated by everyman characters unbowed by convention, who leap off the page level-eyed and unrepentant.

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Joe King Oliver is an ex-New York cop who served three months in Rikers for the rape of a White woman, a crime he didn’t commit. He was framed, but the echoes of the imprisonment stick to Joe like toxic sludge. The hollow sound of the cell door, the indignity of his mistreatment by the guards and the haunting void of hopelessness claws at his soul when the lights are out, even years after his release. Joe has left Rikers, but Rikers hasn’t left him.

The story, a sequel to the Edgar award-winning “Down the River Unto the Sea” (2018), is a spiral staircase leading down to a murky abyss where more stairs await. There are layers of complexity. Actions don’t just have equal and opposite reactions, they slam back deadly, twofold.

Initially, Joe is asked by Roger Ferris, a billionaire in a relationship with Joe’s grandmother, Grandma B, to find out if a notorious white nationalist, Alfred Xavier Quiller, is in prison for just cause or if he’s being set up. Nothing about that appeals to Joe, given his past, but out of obligation, he agrees to take the assignment and go back to prison to talk to Quiller. Not just any prison — Rikers. Joe’s reaction to his reentry is visceral.

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The deeper he digs into Quiller’s dealings, the greater the aversion becomes to his philosophy on race, and the muddier the waters get. The muddier the waters get, the more questions Joe asks of the wrong people and the more danger he puts himself in. Instead of just one brick on his chest, every turn, every revelation adds another, until the bricks pile up and threaten to crush him alive. There are Russian oligarchs and business titans, strongmen, burner phones, janky bars and SROs, and dubious, shadowy figures with dirty hands. The discovery of an illegal oil trafficking scheme soon sets Joe in a different direction, and the spider’s web of intrigue spins on overdrive.

Just when you think the story can’t get twistier, it does, but you don’t mind because Mosley’s writing is so rich, and his characters are not like anyone else’s, anywhere. It’s noir with a social conscience, noir with its thinking cap on. It’s story with its eye on the thread of history from opposing points — how the world is and how it sees itself — and it’s Mosley who shows us what happens to the nameless folk who live in the gap.

Readers who have been anticipating the follow-up to the first novel will be happy to know that Aja-Denise, Joe’s daughter and protegee, is back. She is his center, his ballast. Also returning is the psychopathic antihero Melquarth Frost. Joe’s penchant for women with broken wings persists, and there are two here who stand out, Mathilda Prim, Quiller’s complicated wife, and the “sloe-eyed” Lula McKenzie, who both offer Joe respite from battering storms. There’s even a female bodyguard, Oliya Ruez, sent to protect Joe when things get dicey. Ruez proves quite the character, saying little, missing nothing, capable, lethal. No broken wings there.

When I think of Mosley’s writing, I see it as an image — a narrow canoe at dawn gliding across a still lake, barely disturbing the lifting frost. Not a sound does it make, that narrow canoe. That’s the craft. Seamless. What elevates the plot to something noteworthy in “Every Man a King” is the revelatory unmasking of Joe King Oliver, a man haunted by shackles yet guided by principle. He’s flawed and human and more than enough on a good day. What more can a PI ask for?

Tracy Clark is a mysteries writer whose books include “Borrowed Time,” “What You Don’t See” and “Runner.”

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