They may look like soul brothers, but Joe King Oliver, a New York private eye who makes his first appearance in Walter Mosley’s new crime novel, DOWN THE RIVER UNTO THE SEA (Mulholland/Little, Brown, $27), parts company with the author’s previous detectives, Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill. Unlike those more charismatic protagonists, King has no major sins staining his soul, and since he spent years doing hard time for a crime he didn’t commit, he has no need for redemption. While that makes this disgraced ex-cop an authentic hero, it also puts him at a disadvantage because (let’s come clean) virtuous victims just aren’t as much fun as bad boys.
Women are King’s only weakness. On some anonymous person’s mysterious orders, a deceitful woman put him behind bars. And now this same woman has gotten religion and is offering to clear his name. But it may be too late; prison has damaged his body and stolen his spirit. “They broke me in there, darling,” he tells his 17-year-old daughter. His musical tastes alone are a dead giveaway: Before going to prison, King loved classic jazz masters like Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, but now that he’s out, his tastes run to the tormented sounds of Thelonious Monk (“the madman in the corner pounding out the truth between the fabrications of rhythm and blues”). King gets his mojo back by taking the death-row case of a black militant journalist who calls himself A Free Man and by wading into a politically acute case of police corruption including a drugs-and-prostitution ring run out of a church.
As usual with this singular author, the plot is way over the top; but the vibrant characters and pulsating dialogue are primo Mosley. This time out, the come-hither voice from the dark side belongs to Melquarth Frost, a seductive sociopath who consistently beats King at chess. “You’re crazy, aren’t you, Mel?” King puts it to him. “Yeah. I guess I am,” Frost admits. “I don’t wanna be. It’s not like I can get to it, you know what I mean? I love life. … It’s just … I don’t know.”
“What if I told you I covered up a murder?” THE UNFORGOTTEN (Gallery, $25.99), a first novel by the British journalist Laura Powell, turns on that loaded question. This mournful tale is primarily set in 1956 in a Cornish fishing village plagued by both a serial murderer and a baying pack of reporters lured down from London by the smell of blood. John Gallagher, the only gentleman in this fraternity of uncouth louts, is immediately drawn to Betty Broadbent, the bright 15-year-old daughter of the woman who manages the hotel where the journalists are camped out.
The whole village is soon howling for the hide of Nigel Forbes, the local butcher, but Betty knows the real identity of the so-called Cornish Cleaver. It will take 50 years for the truth to come out, and Powell leaves us agonizing over the terrible choices open to a young woman like Betty, living in a village like St. Steele and seeing no way out.
Prequels are fun because you get an intimate glimpse of your favorite detectives while they’re still wet behind the ears and not so full of themselves. Charles Lenox, a gentleman sleuth who goes on to great things in the charming Victorian novels of Charles Finch, is a mere whippersnapper in THE WOMAN IN THE WATER (Minotaur, $25.99), fresh out of Oxford and determined to set himself up as a “consulting detective” (a profession that barely existed in 1850). As a member of the aristocracy, Lenox has access to Metropolitan Police bigwigs, but to establish himself as a private consultant he must solve a case on his own — ideally, a cunning mystery like the one he and his clever valet, Graham, contend with here.