By John Woodford / Ann Arbor, Mich.
Spoiler alert: There will be no spoilers in this review of Every Man a King, because I find detective fiction not worth reading when spoiled.
Writers of detective fiction tend not to like being measured against Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler every time they publish in the gumshoe genre. And I’m assuming that’s the case with the prolific Walter Mosley. But I’m afraid such comparisons can’t be helped, especially when the writer is a fount of the dazzling and delicious imagery that delights readers of this genre in patterns set by those pioneers. Some random examples from Mosley in his new book:
Tall, she was maybe thirty-three looking twenty-six, dark-skinned with a face that was the shape of an inverted egg. Mathilda Prim’s figure was reminiscent of a Playboy bunny of the late sixties—opulent, impossible.
The only serious furniture was a big oak desk that sat rather high and unevenly, reminding me of a bull intent on a tuft of tasty grass and at the same time wondering if it should gore someone.
That day the big, big man wore a three-piece maroon suit with a pale blue dress shirt and a tie that seemed to be derived from the colors of the dark rainbow that adorns a shallow oil slick.
In spite of appearances, the majesty of nature is just a fancy blanket draped over the malevolence of the creatures of earth.
She had a smile that was something to behold. It 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. There I came upon a peasant woman tilling the soil with a huge hoe made from the horn of some beast of burden. That path could have been anywhere in the world. And that woman was the reason there’s life anywhere. She was both a fortress wall and the only home anyone would ever need.
All of that in a smile.
Such verbal pleasures, if the reader is looking for an enjoyable diversion rather than a masterpiece, furnish the strongest reasons I can muster for recommending this novel, for the sum of its parts are greater than the whole.
Mosley has published 15 novels in his Easy Rawlins series, six with Leonid McGill as protagonist. Every Man a King is the second with Joe King Oliver doing the sleuthing. Oliver is a former New York city cop who was framed and jailed in his introductory appearance in 2018’s Down the River Unto the Sea.
Now he’s out and working as a private investigator. A multibillionaire, Roger Ferris, has hired Oliver to check on the information surrounding the kidnapping, forcible repatriation and jailing of a “natural-born genius” named Alfred Xavier Quiller.
Quiller has become a “poster boy for the Men of Action and other like-minded alt-right organizations.” Ferris suspects him of having information that is damaging to the U.S. government and to Ferris himself, so he sends Oliver to interrogate Quiller in prison.
That’s the main case of the two embroiling Oliver. The other involves his ex-wife’s second husband, who has been jailed and accused of a diesel oil scam involving the Russian government, Russian gangsters or both.
As Oliver pursues both cases, he interacts with so many characters with so many bizarre names and aliases that the diligent reader will need to fashion some sort of scorecard to keep track of them. You’ve met Mathilda Prim of the Playboy contours; here are some, but hardly all, of the other role-players:
Minta Kraft (aka Gloriana Q), Forthright Jorgensen, Coleman Tesserat, Tava Burkel, Rembert Cormody,, d’Artagnan Aramois, Amethyst Banks, Gladstone Palmer, Oliya Ruez, Augustine Antrobus, Yuri Fleganov, Mookie and Loopy Hill, Delphine du Champs, Bexleigh Terrell, Sola Prendergast, and Cassandra Ferris-Brathwaite.
Mosley loads the Ferris-Quiller case with political and social significance and embellishes it with musings arising from Mosley’s deep knowledge of political theory. The rather skimpy secondary plot, involving his ex-wife’s feckless new husband, serves mainly as a channel for the author’s gift for satire, which he does not overdo.
Fairly regularly, the septuagenarian author intrudes on the consciousness of his 40-year-old narrator/hero, permitting Joe King Oliver to be both older-and-wiser than your average private dick in some scenes while in others he’s artful in various modes of combat and irresistible to women, even upon brief acquaintance, as those alter egos of the Hammett-Chandler line of novelists tend to be.
As for the Hammett-Chandler standard: This novel is not up to their snuff. I’d say the socioeconomic and cultural context in Every Man is more fanciful than gritty, the villainy reported and debated more than shown, the excitement and suspense sparse and not altogether convincing. But the novel did raise extratextual mysteries I enjoyed pursing.
First, what’s the significance of the title echoing a slogan of the Louisiana 1930s populist Huey Long? We never learn the connection. Perhaps it’s a pun implying that Joe King Oliver is something of an Everyman.
And then, for me, there was the juiciest mystery of all: When Oliver confronts Quiller, who is, according to the billionaire who hired Oliver, “a misogynist, a racist, a thief and an elitist of the highest order,” and a “betray[er] of our civil rights” to boot, Quiller says: “I’m a patriot; a white man in a white land where, one might say, too many shades clutter the landscape.”
To which Oliver replies: “That’s a bastardization of Ezra Pound…He was likely a genius but more crazy than smart.”
What was the original quotation? I wondered. I followed many Internet leads. I read snippets of numerous poems by Pound in hope of tracing the allusion. I asked a poet friend of mine who is a Pound expert if she had any clues. She hunted, too, but, like me, came up with nothing.
Maybe one of you readers out there can crack this case for me. I’d be much obliged.
John Woodford lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he retired after two decades as the executive editor of Michigan Today, a University of Michigan alumni/ae publication. His career in journalism includes editing and/or reporting duties for Ebony magazine, Muhammad Speaks newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New Haven Register, the New York Times and Ford Motor company publications.