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In 'Down The River,' Walter Mosley Latest Detective Novel Deals With Dualities


He was wrongfully accused - set up, actually - beaten within an inch of his life, confined to solitary in New York's notorious Rikers Island, and even now, a decade later, former police officer Joe King Oliver is still trying to get his life back on track. Sure, he's making ends meet with his private eye service. He's repaired his relationship with his teenage daughter and is cordial with his ex-wife. And he gets to listen to some Thelonious Monk now and then.

Does he really need to take on the complicated case of the activist-journalist accused of being a cop killer? Sure he does, especially when a mysterious letter on pink stationery ties the activist's case to the same corrupt cops who framed Joe 10 years earlier. You following all that? That is the set up of Walter Mosley's juicy new detective novel "Down The River Unto The Sea." And Walter Mosley is with us now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WALTER MOSLEY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So this is - what? - number 53, book number 53 - 54?

MOSLEY: Something like that. It's one of those two numbers. You know, it's hard to tell because, you know, some of the books are, you know - I've published like maybe three or four books electronically. And it depends on what you count and what you don't count among those books that would make the difference.

MARTIN: OK. Well, so we're up there. So how did this one start? What was the nugget that got you started on this one?

MOSLEY: Well, you know, it was very clear to me. The first thing I thought of is all the black activists and intellectuals and political, you know, kind of in quotes "revolutionaries" from, you know, the '50s and '60s up until today who get, you know, blamed for crimes, you know, sent to prison. And, you know, a lot of times, you say, well, they might be guilty, but then again, they might not be guilty, you know. And how was that case done?

And I wanted a person who I thought was not guilty who barely appears in the book. But, I mean, he's guilty in as much as he shot these two policemen. But he's innocent in as much as he was, you know, it was self-defense. And so I wanted write a novel in which that happened, that that you have a policeman - a black policeman, but still a policeman - who hates, you know, what this guy has done. But then as he's paid to get deeper and deeper into it, he begins to understand that everything is not what it seems.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, the book is dedicated to Malcolm, Medgar and Martin, which is interesting. Has this - is something that you've been carrying around for awhile, or is this something that events kind of pushed you to?

MOSLEY: At least 20 years I've been thinking about, you know, you think about people, you know, you have things like Mumia in Philadelphia. You just think about it. And you say, I have feelings about this. I have a way of thinking about this which doesn't seem to be in the mainstream at all. And I want to be able to, you know, to say that the way I'm looking at this world is not necessarily the way the mainstream is looking at this world.

MARTIN: In the spirit of full disclosure, I come from a cop family, policing family, have five police officers in my family all in New York. And it was interesting because you do have police officers in this book themselves who seem to feel those dualities. I mean, they seem to - they recognize that those dualities are there, that there are people among them who are not who they claim to be.

MOSLEY: Right. And it was a lot of fun because there are a lot of different cops in this - in the book. And, you know, a lot of the people that you like, that you get along with, that maybe you don't like for a minute but then you realize, well, maybe you should like them, yeah, I mean, I'm not trying to condemn the police force. So what I'm actually trying to do is say, here's a guy who took actions who's never going to get a fair shake, yeah, because of the way the system is set up around him. And and then I have another guy who says, I need to do something about that. And that's what really, like, excites me.

MARTIN: But there were also cops who weren't getting a fair shake in here.

MOSLEY: Yeah. No, absolutely.

MARTIN: I mean, that's one of the interesting things about it. I wonder if - it kind of reminds me of - there are a couple of rappers like Eminem and Joyner Lucas who are playing with this idea of switching perspectives around race. Well, you're a novelist. That's what you do. You know, you get into other people's heads. But I'm wondering if part of it is - what people are enjoying is the idea of kind of getting into somebody's head for something that they keep hearing about on the news, right?

And there's so many stories that just keep coming at us around these kinds of issues in police conduct and, you know, are the police the good guys? Are they the bad guys? I mean, just as we are talking today, just a couple of days ago, two Baltimore City police officers were convicted for shaking down drug dealers and brutalizing them. And I just wonder, is it the kind of thing that you're allowing people to kind of peer into somebody else's head in a way that they want to do but don't have any other way to do?

MOSLEY: I think that a lot of people understand that, like, you're with this group over here, you and these 20 people. And there's another group over there with their 20 people who you don't like with your group. But you also don't like people in your group. And there are people in our group who are doing things that are not right. And there are people over there that you really respect, you know, because often you respect your enemies, right?

But it's very hard to say those things because, you know, you have - there's a kind of militaristic separation between the two. And so I think that it's - that when you start doing that with your work, what you do is you start opening up people to be able, you know, let them breathe, let them actually experience how they're feeling, who they are, where they're going.

MARTIN: That is New York Times best-selling author Walter Mosley. His latest novel, "Down The River Unto The Sea," comes out this week. He was kind of to talk to us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Walter Mosley, it's always a pleasure. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

MOSLEY: And thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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