The loud crack of the lock snapping shut had a pronounced effect on my self-proclaimed prisoner. His face visibly paled and he grabbed onto the bars of the door with both hands.
"I thought you wanted this," I said.
"Then why do you look so scared?"
"I had certain experiences thirty years ago that made me nervous about close spaces and locked doors," he said.
"So then why you want to lock yourself in a basement?"
"This is a punishment, Mr. Blakey, not a vacation."
This exchange occurs halfway through Walter Mosley's The Man In My Basement. I knew it was coming (it's in the title, fer crying out loud!), but I was caught off-guard by the pleasant slow-burn of Mosley's patient set-up.
Charles Blakey is black; Anniston Bennett, his "guest", is white. Bennett, an ominous stranger, pays to be held prisoner in Blakey's basement. Clearly this is a novel with a "Big Idea" and some weighty dialogue. A lesser novelist would be tempted to cut directly to the chase, and fill in the background as the conflict develops.
Mosley, however, is a pulp veteran still intent on the steady improvement of his game. He's penned over a dozen mysteries, and a handful of other entertainments; he knows how to "boat" a reader. He reaches for the tools of his trade - physical threat, racial tensions, sexual heat - and wields them with a casual elegance. Mosley claims Camus's The Stranger as the inspiration to The Man In My Basement, and he doesn't stray too far from his idol. The novel is a hybrid of Iron John myth-making, Paul Auster existentialist fable, and Stephen King potboiler. It's also a relentless page-turner: I pretty much finished it off in one sitting.
Charles Blakey is the story's feckless narrator. He's born into middle-class comfort, and lives with an unthinking ease that eventually places him in harm's way. He isn't aware of just how much harm, until his talks with Bennett turn up disquieting details. It seems Bennett works in high circles, reclaiming wealth for powerful figures. Bennett assures him that no currency is exchanged without leaving a trail of blood and misery - a fact which Blakey becomes intimately familiar with.
It's difficult to say just what effect this experience finally has on Charles Blakey by book's end. He is certainly a different man by book's end, and he seems intent on taking a measure of responsibility for his present and his past. But is he a better person for the experience? For that matter, is the reader? These questions are difficult to answer, but it is a pleasure to have them asked in a novel as entertaining as this.