Book Review: Every Man a King: A King Oliver Novel
by Walter Mosley
Publication Date: Feb 21, 2023
List Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Imprint: Mulholland Books
Publisher: Hachette Book Group
Parent Company: Hachette Livre
Read a Description of Every Man a King: A King Oliver Novel
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
For those who love the creators of the hard-boiled private dicks from the 1930s such as Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, and Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley’s brilliant, riveting novel, Every Man A King, will be just what the doctor ordered. In his 46th novel, he perfects his soul noir style, building on the glistening foundation of 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel, Down the River Unto the Sea. The celebrated caper features the clean cop, Joe King Oliver, getting locked up in the infamous Rikers Island following his peers muddying his pristine reputation.
Now, Oliver, a former cop and private detective in New York City, is an offshoot of the Mosley gritty products: Easy Rawlins, Leonid McGill, and Fearless Jones. Totally unlike Prohibition where speakeasies, gangsters, and bootleg liquor flourished, the stories feature a cruel, coldhearted modern urban jungle of diminished classes, warring races, and liberties corrupted by profits and privilege. Mosley, one of the most honored and prolific American writers, has earned the 2020 National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, the Anisfield-Wolf Award, a Grammy, a PEN America Lifetime Achievement Award, numerous Edgar awards, and several NAACP Image awards. Also, he serves as a writer and executive producer for FX’s hip Snowfall.
In this book, Mosley mixes up a plot blending Old School hard-boiled formulas with politically trends worthy of die-hard MAGA GOP fans. When the private eye takes on the case of a rich white fella, Roger Ferris, he is doing a family favor for Brenda, his rebellious grandmother. It turns out that Roger has been struck by Cupid for Brenda, who comes from a long line of sharecroppers. Oliver’s mission is to uncover what amounts to a government kidnapping of Alfred Xavier Quiller, being held in a private cell on the infamous Rikers Island. Not only Quiller is a famed genius inventor, but a citizen being investigated for tax evasion and involved in the murder of an American on foreign soil, and selling sensitive information to the Russians.
Roger gives the lowdown on Quiller, who says the government is holding without due process. “I don’t like him,” he adds. “He’s a misogynist, a racist, a thief, and an elitist of the highest order. I’d be happy to see him shot by a firing squad, hanged by the neck, or stoned in the town square.” Quiller believes he is a prisoner of the Deep State.
Once Oliver returns to Rikers, the theme of wrongful imprisonment is featured between the ex-cop and the racist spokesman. Mosley gives the reader a bird’s eye view of America’s largest penal colony. The author’s skill moves the reader through the bulls and the inmates, the corrupt mouthpieces, the riff-raff, the outlaws of the night, and all the folks living a slightly tilted existence. He also looks at the mentality of the alt-right movement through Quiller and those around him. Like Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade, Oliver is tough, laconic, often diving right into the stress and bloodletting in the pursuit of a complex case.
As the private eye visits with the white supremist in his roach-laden cell, Quiller sums up his disdains for the coloreds: “I’m a prince; a white man in a white land where, one might say, too many shades clutter the landscape.” Enough said.
While peeling back the layers of the case, Mosley gets involved with a second caper involving his daughter, Aja-Denise, the stepchild of a disgraced Wall Street hustler, Coleman Tesserat. He is also in prison. The author often is bewildered at the moral and cultural evolution of the modern world, its lack of empathy and compassion, its cold-hearted greed, its celebration of evil and deception. He targets the full range of sins and vice through the various characters on the road to solving both cases. He links the previous villain from the first Oliver book, Mel, with Quiller, acknowledging the many shades of “coloring outside the lines.”
In a recent interview, Mosley notes the practice of novel writing requires the basic need of understanding the world. “The more I think about the world we live in, the more I understand how what used to be seen as mental disabilities are really helpful for survival in this world.”
One of Mosley’s gifts is his use of dialogue, the chatter between characters which propels the action along to its conclusion. Pick any chapter and it’s cinematic and revealing. Similar to Chandler and Cain, he goes to a series of exotic settings, where he pieces together a group of clues and some miscues. There is a smattering of random violence, but nothing obvious. However, it’s the determination, persistence, and wiliness of Oliver that solves the dual cases. Mosley’s narrative is well paced, spare, descriptive, without added verbiage.
Congrats to Mosley’s latest literary creation, Joe King Oliver. He takes on all comers, from Russian mobs, mercenaries, pickpockets, white nationalists, social activists, and lifers. It’s soul noir with timely, modern moral issues. It would be cheating to reveal how the cases were solved, so spoilers are not a part of this review. The tension will keep you breathless and totally guessing. However, the words of Mosley has all of the clues in them: Everything good and everything bad that makes us human. Just imagine this is the second brilliant installment of the Joe King Oliver series… oh man!