This book is filled with meh. And when you think there couldn’t possibly be anymore meh, you turn a page and there it is.
Was it the overly detailed geographic descriptions, the product placements throughout, or was it the story filled with ennui? Possibly, all three. Pelecanos languid “The Man Who Came Uptown” was a sucker punch of boredom and feebleness.
But David, you must be exaggerating, it can’t be that bad? Sadly it is.
Phil Ornazian stepped out of his house, a neat brick brownstone southeast of Grant Circle, in Petworth, on the 400 block of Taylor Street, Northwest.
Let me help Pelecanos here.
Phil Ornazian stepped out of his house, a neat brick brownstone southeast of Grant Circle.
Much better. But cutting down Pelecanos’ GPS narration would make a serious dent on 63,000 words that make up “The Man Who Came Uptown”. Take this for example.
Ornazian took Fifth Street south to Park Place, going along the Soldiers’ Home, and then back on Fifth, between the McMillan Reservoir and behind Howard University, bypassing the congestion of Georgia Avenue and coming out around Florida to the western edge of LeDroit Park. He was headed for New York Avenue and a quick route out of the city. Ornazian knew the backstreets and the shortcuts. He didn’t need Waze or any other app. He’d lived in the District his whole life.
But as always it comes down to characters and story. Pelecanos gives us three main characters: a private investigator who dabbles on the wrong side of the law, a bored housewife who is a prison librarian, and a recently released ex-con who has discovered reading and is looking to go straight. Oh, the potential is there, but as boring as that read, the pages of “The Man Who Came Uptown” the tediousness of their lives.
If you’re interested in reading George Pelecanos’s “The Man Who Came Uptown”, and you really shouldn’t be, check it out from the library.
When I’m planning on reading a book, I tend to shy away reading other reviews prior to digging in. But one of the things I did notice about reviews of Walter Mosley’s Down the River Unto the Sea was the lack of discussion about racism. Oddly the book’s publisher leads with a quote from Booklist that mentions institutional racism. But the reviews shy away. White people, and I should know since I’m a 55-year-old white man, call racism “social issues” as it is a bit more palpable to discuss social issues rather than talk about how our place in society is propped up by racism. Let’s not deflect the blame from us white folk and call it institutional racism, it’s racism, American racism.
Mosley’s Down the River Unto the Sea is about Joe King Oliver, a disgraced New York City ex-cop and now a private investigator with an office in Brooklyn Heights. The book opens with Oliver looking out his office window onto Montague Street and he remembers when he was arrested for rape, thrown into Rikers and spent some three months in solitary. Oliver’s time at Rikers broke him as he admits later in the book, “… I remembered my cell in solitary and how my enemies had broken me, made me cower like a dog.”
While Oliver finishes up one case, another case arrives as he’s hired to prove the innocence of a cop killer, A Free Man aka Leonard Compton, a black militant journalist. Taking on the case of a convicted cop killer as a disgraced ex-cop will prove a delicate matter for Oliver. He also decides to finally look into why and who his frame.
It took a bit for the book to get going, but once it did, Mosley hit all the marks of a fantastic hard-boiled private-eye novel. What makes this novel work is Mosley’s ability to create believable characters. Oliver might have his demons – any man broken in solitary would – but his love for his daughter, though not overly played, helps him keep his moral center. Contrary to many detective novels, Oliver is proficient in technology. Quite refreshing to see a private investigator in this day and age who is not a Luddite. Mosley’s descriptions of people of color: “caramel-buttercream”, “his face a deep brown”, “features that spoke of western Africa”, etc. are interesting and expressive. I’m trying to get to an understanding of the title, “Down the River Unto the Sea”. A Google search comes up with only an old treaty with Native Americans and nothing else. I believe it may be an allusion to the freedom Oliver seeks, though I’m unsure.
But the currents that flow through Down the River Unto the Sea is racism in America. Everyday Oliver deals white people’s off-handed racism, it’s like a low-level hum always running in the background. Sometimes it gets more pronounced like when Oliver visits his grandmother in a nursing home.
“May I help you?” a good-figured blonde asked. She was standing behind the reception counter of the upscale retirement residence. I was liking her style.
In her forties and proud, she wore a green-and-pink-speckled silk blouse to accent a tight black skirt.
Some women just don’t get old.
“Joe Oliver,” I said. “I’m here to see my grandmother.”
“Does she work for one of the patients?” Blondie asked, as easy as if she were talking about the weather.
“No.” I was losing the edge of my attraction.
“Um…” She was really confused. “Does she work for the facility?”
“She’s a resident,” I said. “Brenda Naples. Room twenty-seven oh nine.”
For a moment the receptionist, whose name tag read THALIA, doubted me. But then she worked a little magic on the iPad registry.
“She is here,” Thalia said.
“Has been since before you,” I said, “and will be long after you have moved back to New Jersey.”
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Oliver.”
“Me too,” I concurred. “But maybe not for the same reason.”
But the racism is always there. It is one of the many layers of Mosley’s fine Down the River Unto the Sea, a hard-boiled private detective story filled with crooked cops, shady politicians, and the nastiest of criminals. If you’re a fan of Mosley – and you should be – grab yourself a copy of Down the River Unto the Sea. If you’re not a fan, read this book and you will be.
Sorry I’ve been away from writing reviews for the last month. Part of it was the annual slog through the sunless swamp of low winter in the Pacific Northwest and part of it was that my way of dealing with the black-afternoon blahs was to retreat to the comfort-food reading that got me through a lot of long lonely nights in Christian boarding school: John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Charles Williams, Peter Abrahams, Stephen King, etc.
But I’ve been doing a lot of other reading, too, of more current work.
I’ll start catching you up on those with a question: Is it fair to judge a book by the established standards of its genre, or should it simply be judged on its own merits? I admit I tend toward the former since most readers of crime fiction read, well, a lot of crime fiction, be it P.I. novels, or procedurals, or cozies, or hardboiled tales.
But I always think about the question every time I read a new book.
I ask because A Map of the Dark, by “Karen Ellis,” a pseudonym for Katia Lief, is basically a standard-issue supermarket-checkout-lane suspenser with a surface layer of sophisticated prose—run-on sentences are oh so like totally literary!—that brings to mind a novel-length New Yorker story.
Like the wretched Descent by Tim Johnston, an obnoxiously overpraised “literary thriller” from a few years ago, it pays slavish homage to the tropes that most readers of domestic suspense and law-enforcement procedurals will recognize. In this case, an FBI agent with a haunted past; missing teenage girls; a hot partner with an undercurrent of personal appeal, etc. etc.
But, despite its cut-above-convention pretensions—Elsa Myers, the FBI agent in question is a surreptitious skin cutter, a female analogue of sorts to Frank Marr, the drug-abusing ex-cop from David Swinson’s two novels—it’s really just the same old story you’ve likely read dozens of times before from Catherine Coulter or Alison Brennan or J.T. Ellison or any of the many mass-market FBI-fetishist authors out there.
And it’s done competently but with no special skill: its two big twists are telegraphed far too obviously for them to have much impact on anyone who has read more than a few missing-girl or FBI-agent thrillers.
(I had the same experience with the even-more-hyped pseudo-Hitchcockian The Woman in the Window, by man-pretending-sort-of-to-be-a-woman “A.J. Finn,” which I disliked so much that I don’t trust myself to review it dispassionately.)
The flip side of the question for me came in my reading of May, from Marietta Miles.
When I first read it, I found myself disappointed that it wasn’t more of a cat-and-mouse thriller in its final act, given how skillfully it isolated three people with colliding agendas on a storm-swept North Carolina coastal island. Imagine that: I wanted it to hew to the tropes of the crime genre.
Then I relaxed and realized that May’s heart lay elsewhere, that it isn’t a plotted crime novel so much as a novel that stumbles across crime in the course of peeling back the cover of how real people live when they live close to the ground. May, at heart, is an utterly compelling character study of a wounded woman trying to stumble her way clear of complete shutdown, and of two teenage boys whose compulsive needs put them on a collision course with her need to be needed.
May is the sort of novel I’ll revisit simply because it’s much more than plot twists and pulse points. It’s a nuanced immersion in quiet, almost dignified brokenness, and in time and place (the narrative is split between the early 1970s and 1987, and Louisiana and North Carolina). A perfect mirror moment at about the novel’s halfway point:
May doesn’t think she has what other women have. The way of a mother. When she visits with Linda and her boys she sits next to them on the couch or even in one of their little chairs, working at making them smile. She is also breathless for the duration, knowing something bad will happen and sure it will be her fault because babies are so weak and breakable.
It turns out that May is wrong, that she has what it takes to care for someone more broken than she, and the great pleasure of MAY is in finding out how she finds out. May would never be an FBI agent, nor want to be, but under all that storm damage in her soul is a strong instinct for setting things right. Right enough to live with, anyway.