Charcoal Joe. Walter Mosley.

Mosley, Walter. Charcoal Joe. Doubleday, New York. 2016. F;4/17.

I think this is the first mystery novel I’ve reviewed. I confess here that I take a break from “serious” literary reading once in awhile because I can’t easily find anything compelling enough to commit to and I want something equivalent to watching a Netflix TV series: Deaver, Slaughter, McConaughey, Child, Connely, Grisham…

The best ones command attention, spread on enough love interest and violence to spice things up, use believable language of an environment like the law, police, private investigation, or espionage, and revolve around world domination, a couple of hundred million dollars, top-level government corruption, or what have you. But I’ve always felt reading this kind of stuff like a kid flipping through superhero comic books spinning in neutral.

Until I ran into this one.

Walter Mosley is prolific, he has dozens of mysteries and non-fiction works to his name. He’s in his mid-60s, and writes semi-sequential mysteries about particular characters, in this case “Easy” (Ezekiel) Rawlins, a private investigator. The characters are nearly all black like Mr. Mosley, and criticism establishes that he deals with blacks-in-America issues in a sequential way through his books. I found his racial polemic mild and reasonable, the black idiom charming, genuine, and compelling in- and of-itself.

Easy is comfortably-off, has just started a private investigation firm with a couple of buddies, and is set to propose marriage to his girlfriend. The marriage proposal’s complexity drove for me the first stake into the heart of ordinary thriller-mystery traffic. I had an art gallery experience reading the description of our hero’s emotional response. This is subjective of course but I had – independently of what I was reading – a sentiment I have had intermittently (and struggled to understand) for maybe 60 years, and suddenly as I read this fictional character’s feelings I recognized that sentiment was … sadness.

I have no idea what that emotional connection meant, except to say that I inferred in my reading experience enough literary grace for me to suspend disbelief. This would be a smaller-scope kind of thing than I had for example with The Hours by Cunningham, but still: an epiphany. Enough to convince me that I was dealing with something beyond the adventures of The Lincoln Lawyer.

The writing is full of nuance and atmosphere. A minimum-security detention facility resounds with the dark ambiguity of Kafka’s Trial as Easy finds his way past its outer levels, and indeed Easy later remarks on the similarity. I somehow found it comforting to find in tough-guy prose “of” always following “couple” when it means two. Minor details but examples of literary-level care being taken.

Our hero Rawlings takes on a case and gets embroiled with titular character Charcoal Joe who is or was romantically involved with a girl with whom he had a son who has become an academic and who has been accused, wrongly, of murder. The downfall for me of this beautifully-written story is that the plot and characters become Dostoyevskian. Kindle x-ray and online critiques weren’t enough to untangle things. It just wasn’t clear to me what happened in the end and in this kind of a story unlike some postmodern short fiction you need to know.

It didn’t bother me that Easy’s name described how much trouble he had developing relationships with the gorgeous women who kept appearing. Somehow that was fortuitous and I enjoyed keeping company with him. Easy is just so charming:

Adolescent girls don’t like being shuffled around haphazardly. They want to be heard and in control of their environment. That’s how I knew the degree to which Feather (his daughter) was worried about me; because instead of arguing she said, “Yes, Daddy.”

I like to think I that I am an honest man, but in the modern world you can’t carry honesty very far without taking a break from time to time.

On TV shows like westerns… all you had to do was point the gun at an unarmed man and demand he surrender; he grumbles, puts his hands in the air, and you go home to a pot roast and the plaudits of lovers and friends.

I guess my feelings have to be mixed. There is no question this is way beyond the mystery/thriller run-of-the-mill. But I think I would like to have had the emotional and moral joy delivered more directly in the plot line and conclusion itself. Maybe I’m looking for Hollywood in Compton but I think Walter Mosley is or should be capable of doing both at once.

I’m sure I’ll read more of his work and I recommend it to anyone who feels guilty about reading mystery novels. 8.1/8.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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