Bob Moyer reads a lot and reviews a lot of books. If he had to name his favorite authors, I’m guessing Walter Moseley would be at or near the top of the list.
Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer
EVERY MAN A KING. By Walter Mosley. 324 pages. $28.
Joe King Oliver doesn’t really want to take the job his grandmother’s billionaire boyfriend Roger Ferris offers him. Ferris wants him to prove that Xavier Quiller has been falsely and illegally imprisoned. His daughter doesn’t want him to do it because Quiller is the most outrageous white nationalist in America. His grandmother doesn’t want him to do it because Ferris is “… rich and spoiled and don’t give a goddamn about little people like you and me.” Joe hesitates, but takes the job: “…. a company that specialized in prison systems, that had the power to pull anyone they wished out of one country and deposit them in another, a business whose product was the abrogation of human rights…well, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t turn my back on that.”
Joe has a personal as well as a political dog in this fight, however. A few years back when he was a cop, he was set up then shut up in solitary in Riker’s Island, where Quiller is held. Now he has to re-visit that trauma.
Twice. Because just as he sets out, his ex-wife calls him to say her new husband has been arrested on mob money-laundering charges, and is being held incommunicado in Riker’s as well. Joe reluctantly agrees to help — for his daughter’s sake — and starts off on a dangerous journey, a man of color making his way through a racist world.
And what a way it is. Joe’s journey shows us places we would never see, people we would never meet. He takes us from the grandeur of a high-rise billionaires’ club to the gritty streets of Brownsville, N.Y.; from a safe house with a torture chamber in Vermont to a two-story apartment buried in Van Cortland Park; from a motel in Atlanta to Dingo’s Retreat Motel in Hoboken. Along the way, Joe gets help from the psychotic killer Melquarth, who helps him squeeze the info out of a Russian mobster he needs to clear his ex’s husband. Melquarth also hires a body guard cum assassin named Oliyah Ruez to protect Joe. The world’s luckiest gambler Lamont Charles, the gun-runner and his all-round bad-ass Uncle Rags, and, most important, the white nationalist’s black wife, Mathilda Prim, all make dramatic appearances. It’s Mathilda Prim who holds the key to what the billionaire wanted at the beginning of the story, which Mosley does not reveal until the end of the story.
In between, examples of the black man’s place in the modern world abound, as do examples of this black author’s artistry. “Helping for no reason,” says Joe when observed aiding a woman across the street, “that is life at its best. Most people in your cities don’t know it. Almost everyone in our business thinks that they cannot afford kindness. They don’t have a reason for living and so go through life like the dead.” When Joe first sees Oliyah, he thinks she has a smile that “…felt as if I had been walking on a paved road that gave way to pounded earth that then became a less-trodden path through a wood … She was both a fortress wall and the only home anyone would ever need.”
Every page has a turn of phrase worth noting. Mosley is not just one of America’s best mystery novelists, nor just one of America’s best black novelists. He’s flat out one of America’s best novelists.