The versatile, justly celebrated creator of Easy Rawlins, Leonid McGill, and other iconic crime solvers raises the stakes with this tightly wound combination of psychological suspense and philosophic inquiry.
Every now and then, Mosley (Down the River Unto the Sea, 2018, etc.) likes to pitch a change-up to his detective novel devotees with forays into racy melodrama (Debbie Doesn’t Do It Any More, 2014) and science fiction (Inside a Silver Box, 2015). Here he weaves elements of both the erotic and the speculative into a taut, riveting, and artfully edgy saga of a charismatic and controversial history professor at a mythical southwestern university. If his name, which is the same as the novel’s, sounds like an alias, it is an alias: In a previous life, John Woman’s name was Cornelius Jones, a shy teenage bookworm filling in for his invalid father, Herman, a projectionist in a silent-movie repertory theater in Manhattan’s East Village. Cornelius, or CC, finds his unassuming life disrupted when the theater’s owner barges into the projection booth threatening to fire his dad. CC kills the owner and hides his corpse in a trunk that he stows in a built-in bookcase concealed from view. After his father dies, Cornelius changes his identity, attends both City College and Harvard, and eventually heads for the New University of the Southwest, where, as professor Woman, he achieves a reputation as a demanding instructor of “deconstructionist historical devices,” intended to challenge students to think outside conventional definitions of recorded time. Woman’s provocative approach to his subject bewilders most of his students (at first) while ticking off fellow faculty members enough to look for any reason to dismiss him. In the meantime, Woman makes things hotter for himself with an affair with a student and is chilled by the enigmatic shadows stalking him, whether it’s a mysterious billionaire auditing his class or anonymous notes he finds on his kitchen table alluding to his deadly past.
Somehow, it makes sense that when Walter Mosley puts forth a novel of ideas, it arrives with the unexpected force of a left hook and the metallic gleam of a new firearm.