Source: Review Copy
Publication: 8 March 2018 from W&N
Joe King Oliver was one of the NYPD’s finest investigators until, dispatched to arrest a well-heeled car thief, he is framed for assault, a charge that lands him in the notorious Rikers Island prison.
A decade later, King is a private detective, running his agency with the help of his teenage daughter, Aja-Denise. When he receives a card in the mail from the woman who admits she was paid by someone in the NYPD to frame him all those years ago, King realises that he has no choice but to take his own case: figuring out who on the force wanted him disposed of – and why.
At the same time, King must investigate the case of black radical journalist Leonard Compton, aka A Free Man, accused of killing two on-duty police offices who had been abusing their badges to traffic drugs and women into the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.
In pursuit of justice, our hero must beat dirty cops and even dirtier bankers. All the while, two lives hang in the balance: Compton’s, and King’s own.
It takes hardly the opening page for the reader to know that they are in the hands of a real wordsmith; and beyond that, a genuinely classy writer who is not afraid to tackle some of the biggest issues in America today.
I can’t begin to do justice to this book, every word is considered and Mosley knows just how to convey, when you are down on you luck in the worst possible way, what it feels like to have someone rub salt in your wounds.
Joe King Oliver is our protagonist. A black NYPD detective with thirteen years’ service and with a fondness for the fairer sex; a cop who was framed for the rape of a white woman he was sent to arrest for car theft. His father had been a criminal and so he became a cop.
Oliver spent three months in prison before the charges were dropped and his description of life in the hell-hole that is Rikers is strong and evocative. Attacked by jailers and inmates and both mentally and physically scarred for life in prison, he learnt a lot about his own capacity for violence. “Somebody was going to die by my hand. After two weeks, it didn’t much matter who.”
His latter days in jail were spent in solitary confinement for his own safety. In prison “Time congealed around me like amber over a mosquito that had taken a small misstep.” He knows that “Getting me put in solitary rescued me from becoming a murderer”
When he was finally released his job and his pension were dust and his marriage was over, thanks to the video the cops had shown his wife of the alleged rape.
Ten years later, when we first meet him, he has set up a private detective agency, and is eking out a meagre living while brooding about the unfairness of his situation and dreaming of vindication and a return to the job he loved so much.
Although Joe was a womaniser, he had his own code of conduct, he knew where the line was that should not be crossed and he had prided himself on his fairness and diligence. His teenage daughter Aja-Denise works in his office, and she is the one ray of light in his otherwise dark and solitary world. Even his libido has taken a severe knock. “When I got off the bus at the Port Authority I stopped and looked around, realising how hollow the word freedom really was.”
Then one day he receives a letter from Beatrice Summers, a woman he once knew as Nathali Malcolm. She is the woman responsible for his downfall; the woman he was accused of raping. Now she has found a new life, a husband and family and a new faith. It is this faith that leads her to write to Oliver offering to testify on his behalf and asserting that she had been forced to frame him by an NYPD officer.
As King ponders what to do, juggling his rage and his fear of what might happen if he re-opens his case; another opportunity walks through the door.
Leonard Compton, a black militant journalist known as A Free Man, is facing the death penalty for the murder of two police officers. His lawyer had been preparing a death row defence, claiming the cops were trying to kill him for meddling in their corrupt and child trafficking business.
But the lawyer has now abandoned the case, and his assistant, a young woman lawyer more than half in love with A Free Man, brings the file to King and asks him to look into the case and why the lawyer is about to ‘sell him down the river’. Though King is wary, this is a case that strikes a strong chord with his own experience and he realises that “If Man was innocent and I freed him, then it would be, in some way, like freeing myself.”
So he resolves to follow a twin track and to take on Man’s case at the same time as pursuing those who stitched him up.
Knowing this case will be dangerous, and far too dangerous to tackle alone, he recruits Melquarth Frost, a sociopathic criminal whom he once arrested but treated fairly, something Melquarth has never forgotten.
What follows is a dark and violent pursuit of criminals, corrupt cops and businessmen and some seriously violent interrogations. King, the man who knows what lines should not be crossed, comes very close to crossing them all and the more he thinks he is getting closer to the truth, the more he feels like he is alive again.
Mosely is a natural storyteller with a hard boiled edge and a strong thread of compassion. In King he has created an enduring character; a fighter for freedom who inhabits the world between justice and inequality. He focuses a light on class, race and gender issues that shines more brightly than I have read in fiction for a long time.
Yes, this is seriously good reading and very dark noir, but it is also surprising in its compassion and in its understanding of the justice system.
A compelling and stunning read this is a captivating book by a writer of distinction and I really need to read more of Joe King Oliver.
About Walter Mosley
Walter Mosley is one of the most versatile and admired writers in America today. He is the author of more than 43 critically acclaimed books, including the major bestselling mystery series featuring Easy Rawlins. His work has been translated into 23 languages and includes literary fiction, science fiction, political monographs, and a young adult novel. His short fiction has been widely published, and his nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Nation, among other publications. He is the winner of numerous awards, including an O. Henry Award, a Grammy and PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He lives in New York City.
You can find out more about Walter Mosley here.