Book Review: “Charcoal Joe” by Walter Mosley; Hypnotic

charcoal_joe_coverI love this hypnotic book, the 14th in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series—best book I’ve read in ages.

Easy’s childhood friend Mouse introduces him to Rufus Tyler, a man everyone calls Charcoal Joe. Joe, for reasons unclear at the outset, wants a young black man—Seymour (top of his class in physics at Stanford)—cleared of charges that he murdered two white men. Joe tells Easy he will pay well to see this young man exonerated, but seeing as how white cops—more inclined toward a quick close than seeking justice—found Seymour standing over the dead bodies, that exoneration requires puppetry that only Easy can manage.

Charcoal Joe has a depth and literary quality lacking in most books of the mystery genre, yet the pace never slows below a fast trot, and quickly returns to its former gallop. I pretty much read it in one day (Christmas—best present I’ve given myself in a long time). It mesmerized me to the degree that I read it again the next day—to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and to savor Mosley’s fine writing and storytelling that much longer.

The depth comes from Mosley’s portrayal, from a black man’s perspective, of race relations in Los Angeles in the late sixties. Race relations that do not seem to have improved much in the ensuing five decades, the civil rights movement notwithstanding. Yet, the story goes beyond that as an observation of human frailty and humanity’s enigmatic see-saw between self-preservation and self-destruction.

Charcoal Joe also has a enough humor to elicit regular chuckles. My favorite line in the book (a comment by one of the characters): Charcoal Joe is just a tombstone waitin’ for a name. A close contender: We might as well have been two dogs snarling at the bait of pheromones on the air.

Mosley’s descriptions (and at times snarky remarks) of the attire worn by the characters is right up there with Archie McNally in the beloved series by Lawrence Sanders.

Yeah, this book has a lot of characters; I’ve read a number of reviews complaining about it—saying, in effect, that “it’s complicated.” And the problem is? I’d say those complaints are more of a reflection of the readers than the writer. Life is a series of complications; criminal life adds more layers to that complication. That’s what keeps this book so interesting and entertaining.

As an editor, writing coach, and instructor, I will be holding up this near-perfect book as an example of writing to emulate.

Sadly—and I lay this on publisher Doubleday’s editors—this delightful book is scuffed by editorial errors that I have come to anticipate in self-published books but should not be evident in a book from one of the holier-than-thou, self-righteous Big Five. Not only the number of typos and style errors, but out-of-place text that either fell onto the wrong page through an errant cut-and-paste mouse click, or a hurried edit, or the text should have been cut but never was. This jumps out on page 65, and in one or two other places later in the book.

But I don’t think Mosley should be punished for that with a reduced rating. Even if he introduced those errors, the Doubleday editors should have caught them. (Let that be a lesson for those of you who exalt over (or aspire to) a publishing deal with one of these culprits. In today’s world, the care and hand-holding of the likes of legendary Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins are merely that—the stuff of legend.)

About Polishing Your Prose

Larry M Edwards is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, editor and publishing consultant. He is the author of three books, and has edited dozens of nonfiction and fiction book manuscripts. Under Wigeon Publishing, he has produced six books. As author, "Dare I Call It Murder? A Memoir of Violent Loss" won First Place in the San Diego Book Awards in 2012 (unpublished memoir) and 2014, Best Published Memoir. The book has also been nominated for a number of awards, including: Pulitzer Prize, Benjamin Franklin Award, Washington State Book Award, and One Book, One San Diego. As Editor, "Murder Survivor’s Handbook: Real-Life Stories, Tips & Resources" won the Gold Award in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, Self-Help. For a sample edit and cost estimate, contact Larry: larry [at] larryedwards [dot] com -- -- --
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