In 2019, Walter Mosley won his first Edgar with a new PI. Now there’s a sequel

A man wearing a fedora poses with his hand under his chin.
Walter Mosley’s latest mystery, “Every Man a King,” is the second in his newish King Oliver series, about an ex-cop juggling multiple odd cases in New York City.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)


'Every Man a King: A King Oliver Novel'

By Walter Mosley
Mulholland: 336 pages, $28

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In 2018’s “Down the River Unto the Sea,” New York City PI Joe King Oliver slid into the space occupied in many readers’ hearts by Walter Mosley’s iconic Los Angeles hero, Easy Rawlins. It’s not that the author hasn’t from time to time located his fiction in the Big Apple — most recently in 2020’s “Trouble Is What I Do,” the sixth in the Leonid McGill series. But unlike Mosley’s other Black heroes, Oliver (named after the famed New Orleans jazz cornetist) was a senior-level detective until his double-crossing NYPD colleagues framed him for raping a white woman.

One of the chief satisfactions in “Down the River,” which won an Edgar (incredibly, Mosley’s first for an individual book), was watching the author orchestrate Oliver’s emotional destruction and transmutation in the infamously hellish Rikers from respected cop to a man capable of murder. Luckily, he’s exonerated some three months later and spends the next decade rebuilding his life and livelihood through firsthand knowledge of how justice was “influenced by circumstance, character and, of course, wealth or lack of same.”

Oliver’s innate understanding of the system is tested again in Mosley’s new book, Every Man a King,” which is set some five years after the conclusion of “Down the River.” Oliver is summoned by Roger Ferris, chairman of an $800-billion corporation, who’s being challenged for its control by his adult children. The scenario is reminiscent of Sumner Redstone’s battle with daughter Shari over Viacom. But Mosley’s nonagenarian is less interested in corporate intrigue than romancing Oliver’s 93-year-old grandmother, Brenda, in his Upper West Side mansion. He’d also like Oliver to investigate the detention of Alfred Quiller, a misogynistic racist and poster boy for alt-right groups.


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Quiller contacted Ferris to allege he’d been framed and illegally detained in a private cell on Rikers by a shadowy branch of the government on trumped-up charges of tax evasion, murder and the sale of sensitive information to the Russians. While Oliver has pegged Quiller as “a man of towering intelligence fueled by a zealot’s ignorance” and wonders why Ferris cares whether a man’s civil rights are being violated by the deep state, he takes the case out of gratitude for Ferris’ help with an earlier investigation — and perhaps out of deference to his grandmother.

"Every Man a King," by Walter Mosley
(Little, Brown)

One bad idea is compounded by another when Oliver agrees to help his ex-wife Monica’s current husband, Coleman Tesserat. The bougie Black banker — who Oliver notes “still used the word Negro and was having an extramarital affair with at least one woman” — has been arrested in a heating oil scam and the couple’s assets frozen. While Oliver has no lingering fondness for Monica, who refused to bail him out of Rikers years back, he takes the case because of his love for their teenage daughter, Aja-Denise, who works in his PI office and is his moral North Star.

Propelled by his personal allegiances, Oliver pursues clues pertaining to Quiller and Tesserat through colorful parts of New York’s boroughs, New England hideouts and Southern no-tell motels. And when the two cases intersect, as they inevitably do in this genre, things get even more complicated. The upside is that readers are treated along the way to the evocative prose and astute observations about human nature, race relations and family bonds that have distinguished Mosley’s writing for some 30 years. For example, when Oliver ponders from the comfort of a hideout in Vermont how to do the right thing in a case that gets darker by the day: “In spite of appearances, the majesty of nature is just a fancy blanket draped over the malevolence of the creatures of earth.”

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To get these nuggets, however, readers will have to wade through the actions and backstories of so many characters — some relevant to the plot and others that seem to be opportunities for Mosley to build a stable of backup players for later use — that a spreadsheet may be required to keep it all straight.

Reading Mosley over the decades, one can’t help but see the throughlines among his Black male heroes, their families and sidekicks. Amid the chorus in this developing series, a few stand out: Oliver’s no-nonsense grandmother, whose advanced age does not deter her from taking her time before committing to an intimate relationship with Ferris; and his devoted daughter, Aja-Denise, who wants to be his partner in the PI firm but recoils at the prospect of doing business with Quiller and his evil ilk. These standout familiars are joined by two formidable supporting players: Melquarth Frost, a devilish fixer reminiscent of Mouse in the Easy Rawlins series; and Oliya Ruez, a new archetype for Mosley — a kickass female agent from the International Operatives Agency, hired by Frost to watch Oliver’s six while he stalks the complicated cases.

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“Every Man a King” is an entertaining but muddled extension of the themes that have inspired Mosley and delighted his legion of fans for years. There could be much to look forward to in future adventures as Joe King Oliver leads this engaging quintet of familiar and new players and side men. I only hope that, like Oliver’s wise, deliberative grandmother, Mosley keeps things simple and paces himself.

Woods is a book critic, editor and author of the Detective Charlotte Justice mysteries.