Why would a white man want to be imprisoned in a cell in a black man’s basement for a summer? This is essentially the question that Walter Mosley, author of the acclaimed Easy Rawlins crime fiction series, asks in his new novel ‘The Man in the Basement’. We meet Charles, an unemployed alcoholic, as he is struggling to find the money to pay the mortgage instalments for his large ancestral home in the Hamptons. So into his life walks Anniston Bennett, a wealthy, white, New Yorker who offers to pay $750 per day for the privilege of living in a locked cell in Charles’s basement. By agreeing to the stranger’s request, Charles, frightened but empowered by the situation, becomes Anniston’s tyrannical warden, intent on unearthing his prisoner’s terrible secrets.
The situation Mosley creates gives him the opportunity to explore issues of power, race, and slavery, however these concepts seem misplaced in a narrative which has all the profundity of a self-confessional in a Readers Digest magazine. Mosley has the potential to create a memorably original character in Anniston Bennett, but he becomes ludicrously improbable and we discover he is yet another clichéd, evil-white-capitalist. Mosley’s book is a good thriller and does entertain, yet it is perhaps more suited to aeroplane reading than any meaningful attempt to deal with the concerns of race and power that still haunt modern-day America.