Ripples in a still pool. It’s an evocative image. Except pools are rarely still and, to produce the ripples, you need an outside force. It can be something as mundane as the wind ruffling the surface, or it can be a human force. A hand dropping or throwing a stone will produce the effect, assuming the pool is deep enough to absorb the stone without splashing all the water out on to the surrounding earth. In some ways, All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley (Riverhead Books, 2012) is a book about karmic balance. We go through life dropping or throwing stones into the succession of pools we pass or, perhaps, it’s always the same pool we keep circling — I need to work on my metaphor a little more to get this clear. Anyway, we drop these stones and there are plenty of ripples. We can watch them and judge. Some sets of ripples may meet our criteria for righteousness in action. Others will represent guilt through wrongdoing. Those of us afflicted with a conscience will sometimes try to take back the guilty stones. Except, to do that, you have to plunge your arm into the pool and grab the relevant stones. This arm movement has the same effect as the original stones, and completely new ripples spread out across the pool.
Our series character, Leonid McGill is a man on a mission to try to set the world right again. Except, as he discovers in this case, he can actually cause more harm as a result of his attempts at atonement. Leonid is not a simple Christian seeking salvation for a past sins. This is a more complicated man who’s trying to redefine a new moral centre for himself and in his relationships with others. He sees the world clearly for what it is. This doesn’t mean he’s free from prejudices. Put him in the same room as someone oozing money, and the teachings of his communist father predispose him to anger. Have someone weak and vulnerable ask for help and he’s sometimes too willing to help. By that I mean he’s willing to do whatever may be necessary to keep that person safe. If that means deciding whether to remove a threat, he will face the decision honestly. He has killed and is prepared to do so again. He feels better about it when he acts in self-defence or the defence of others. In a way, this makes Leonid McGill a slightly different PI hero. Walter Mosley specialises in writing about strong men, but we now see they fall into two groups. Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones prefer to be left alone. They have to be pushed into situations where helping others becomes necessary. Altruism doesn’t come to them naturally. But Socrates Fortlow and Leonid McGill accept a responsibility to save the world. Although in fairness, both are realistic enough to acknowledge the world is a big place and, sometimes, you can only work one miracle at a time.
So, eight years ago, when McGill was still wearing his criminal hat, he framed a woman as having a part in a major robbery. She was a convenient target, having just taken a gun to her husband. It was a crime of passion, he was in bed with another woman at the time and she failed to kill him. Now he’s used his legal contacts to have her conviction for the robbery quashed. Except this triggers an increasingly dangerous confrontation with the actual criminals who stole the money, the police who want to know why McGill is helping this woman, and the company that lost millions in the robbery and is convinced the woman knows where it is. To add to the pot, we have an immensely wealthy man who’s having trouble with his son and knows McGill can be relied on in tough situations. This time, however, Leonid has different resource to call into play. In the hope of saving his own son from a criminal career, he’s giving him the rich boy as his first case for the family firm. It soon becomes obvious that the heir to the throne is more into criminal activity than his father suggested and it could be rather dangerous. When professional hitmen try to take out McGill and everyone else in the home, it’s time for our hero to use that thing he calls a brain and work out what’s happening. The fact he’s suffering a fever and taking antibiotics isn’t helping him think clearly.
Unfortunately, McGill’s wife is also proving difficult as the children start moving out of the nest, his girlfriend wants him back in her life and there’s a new woman who, in other circumstances, would be in his sights. There’s also news of his father. This is emotionally confusing at a time when he’d prefer not to be distracted. In the end, he tethers himself to a tree and waits to see which tigers will come out of the jungle to kill him. Waiting with your eyes open can be the quickest way to solve cases.
This is quite the best of the McGill books to date. The richness of the characters’ lives becomes ever more clear. The family is expanding and the cast of regulars grow more like neighbours every time we open a new contribution to their shared history. All this told with the crystal clarity prose that’s Walter Mosley’s trademark. There are even a couple of genuinely funny moments in all the mayhem to round off another bravura writing performance. All I Did Was Shoot My Man should be compulsory reading for anyone with even a passing interest in contemporary life in New York and the world inhabited by PIs trying to make good.
This was nominated in the Best Novel category in the 2013 Edgar Awards.