I first encountered the work of Walter Mosley when I was teaching a module on crime writing. Back then I thought Devil in a Blue Dress was good, but not great. I found the novel too smooth and preferred the rawness of Chester Himes or the cynicism of Raymond Chandler. My students agreed and I never read another Mosley novel, until this week.
Wandering around the library, the cover of The Man in My Basement caught my eye. Reading the blurb, I thought that Mosley perhaps deserved a second chance. I like crime and mystery, after all, and had already selected novels by Jefferson Bass and Peter James to take home. Expecting a similar novel, some light reading to brighten up late shifts at work, I took The Man home.
The Man turned out to be anything but light. Good-for-nothing protagonist Blakey, broke and borderline alcoholic, urgently needs money to pay off his mortgage and avoid losing his family home. He starts by selling junk from his attic – which turns out to be surprisingly valuable in both a monetary and a cultural sense – but soon a more lucrative opportunity presents itself. When he is approached by the mysterious Mr Bennett, who wants to rent his basement and offers an exorbitant sum in return, Blakey believes his problems will be over for good.
I thought I knew what to expect. Obviously Mr Bennett would turn out to be a villain and use the basement to stash stolen goods, produce drugs, or imprison a hostage, Reservoir Dogs-style.
I was wrong.
Bennett wants to imprison himself in an actual cage – he brings one for Blakey to build, like a piece of Ikea furniture – to punish himself for his crimes against humanity. This is where the novel gets really interesting and really creepy. Suddenly we’re looking at a white man held hostage by a black man. Or are we? Power dynamics become rather complex as the narrative progresses. Is Blakey a guard or a servant? How does the whole situation affect their personal histories and the collective histories the characters are inevitably part of?
Even though there are plenty of opportunities for violence the novel rarely describes it in detail. Combined with the pared-back writing style, this narrative choice makes the story feel allegorical. I don’t think I quite understand what it’s really about, but I believe that’s exactly where its force lies. This is a seemingly simple story that really isn’t simple at all.
Some reviewers apparently find this novel boring. If you’re looking for the kind of spectacle offered by James or Bass, I suppose this is a fair criticism. But if you’re looking for a book that offers more than entertainment and really gets under your skin, look no further.
The Man is proof that every author deserves a second chance. Even if the first book you try leaves you cold, the next one may chill you to the bone.
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