When a mystery writer’s bread and butter is the colorful, often heroic, sometimes outrageous characters he creates, one can only imagine that it can be difficult to keep up a winning streak.
For more than three decades Walter Mosley has brought readers hits in the form of sometimes ethically challenged private eyes and redemption-seeking ex-cons such as Easy Rawlins and his sidekick, Mouse, Leonid McGill, Socrates Fortlow, and Ptolemy Grey, as well as do-gooder bookstore owner Fearless Jones.
But in his newest book, “Odyssey,” Mosley’s protagonist may be a miss. Sovereign James is a single, childless, African-American human-resources executive for Techno-Sym, a Manhattan technology company. His life is totally predictable; his only love is his work and this is the way he likes it.
Then one morning he awakens to find that he is blind. His doctors are baffled as they can find no organic problem. Dr. Seth Offeran, a very intuitive psychoanalyst, believes James’s loss of sight is “hysterical” in nature, caused by the subconscious memory of a past traumatic emotional event.
Then James’s life takes yet another unexpected turn. He’s mugged in the street outside his high-end apartment building, and he manages to avoid serious injury by dodging some of his assailant’s vicious blows. How does this happen? A woman standing nearby screams and that scream triggers something that allows James to see momentarily.
This incident sets in motion James’s quest to restore his vision. He begins by tracking down Toni Loam, the 19-year-old woman whose screams saved him, embarks on a reckless May-December relationship with her, and digs into his memories to find out what happened to cause his tailspin.
James’s revelations all revolve around his broken family and how his flight from family chaos as a young man may have kept him from ever finding himself or who he was meant to be. There are frequent dreams of Eagle, the paraplegic grandfather he cared for as a boy and loved more than any other relative; Drum-Eddie, the younger brother who has been living abroad for decades to avoid federal authorities who say he robbed a bank as a teenager; Zenith, the older sister who hates him because he skipped their father’s funeral; and Winifred, the mother he hasn’t seen or spoken to in decades.
The more he remembers, the more reckless James gets, inexplicably risking his career and possible life in prison when police accuse him of attempting to kill a man during another adrenaline-fueled return of his sight.
If there is a singular problem with this book (besides the all-too-obvious blindness metaphor), it is that Mosley attempts to combine all of his usual “game-winning” elements — lives turned upside down, risky romances, careers threatened, criminal investigations, crafty cons and ex-cons, and at least one “fixer” who can make problems go away inside or outside the confines of the law — with a protagonist who doesn’t seem up to the challenge.
James is simply not a particularly interesting or compelling character. A typical Mosley protagonist finds himself wrestling with a flexible moral code and a marked taste for adventure and even danger. James, on the other hand, spends an inordinate amount of time trying to justify and make himself comfortable with the newfound recklessness that he desperately wants to enjoy. It all feels forced.
The plot pieces are potentially all there with “Odyssey,” but for once Mosley has attempted to place a square peg in a round hole. And as a Mosley protagonist goes, you don’t get any squarer than Sovereign James.James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.