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The Man in My Basement by Walter Mosley


Rating: (Recommended)


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The characters and narrative of Walter Mosley’s new novel, The Man in My Basement, will be memorable in a haunting way for some readers. Anniston Bennet, a white man, asks Charles Blakey, a black man, to be locked in a cage in Blakey’s basement as a form of self-punishment. Blakey wants to resist, but agrees for financial reasons. Throughout the novel, the themes of power, manipulation, repentance and the darkness of evil are explored with Mosely’s talents. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 20, pp. 168-175:

Bennet was dressed when I returned. Seated in the red chair, he wasn’t reading or doing anything else as far as I could see.

“Mr. Dodd-Blakey,” he said in greeting.

“Mr. Bennet,” I replied.

It was an acknowledgment, the beginning of an under­standing.

I pulled the trunk up to his cell and sat.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“To serve out my time. To pay my debt.”

“Pay who?”

“Every minute I’m in here costs me something, Charles. May I call you Charles?”

“It’s my name,” I said.

“My business relations are delicate, Charles. My atten­tion is needed sometimes within moments of certain events. When my phone rings I’m supposed to answer. If I fail to respond there are consequences.”

“What kind of consequences?”

“That depends on the event.” He shrugged and crossed one leg over the other. “Money might be lost, a political player could be discredited. Someone might die.” He looked up at the ceiling. “Later on I’ll be held responsible.”

“By the law?”

“By the rules.”

“Are the rules different than the law?”

He smiled in that knowing way. “The rules don’t need a judge’s interpretation. There’s no defense. When you’re absent you’re dealt out. And then no one recognizes you but your enemies.”

“All that’s going to happen, but you still want to stay in here?”

“No.” His impossible eyes looked straight into mine.

“Then why?”

“Have you ever been in love?” was his reply.

I stalled, not wanting to. I would have liked to have said Of course. Everybody’s been in love. But it wasn’t true. It wasn’t true and I didn’t want to lie to my new mentor.

I’d never been in love. Never even for a moment. I adored, idolized, lusted after, and cared for many women. I dated, kissed, had sex with; I waited for, stood by, and wanted. But I’d never been like those deer that moved to­gether through the woods, keeping each other company as a matter of course. I’d never been attached by the sense of smell and warmth and security. I once read in a novel that love and gravity are the same thing, that natural at­traction in nature is also the passion of man. I thought then that I was like a weightless astronaut, locked in a protective shell and floating in emptiness.

“Me neither,” Anniston Bennet said, addressing my si­lence. “I’ve always done what I wanted to do or what I be­lieved I needed. But I’ve never been brought to an action because of my heart.”

It was almost ludicrous, listening to the reclamations ex­pert’s talk about the heart, but I was moved anyway. The contradiction of emotions rattled around in my head.

“What’s that got to do with you sitting down here locked up in a cage?”

“That’s why I asked if you had ever been in love, Charles. Because love isn’t a short skirt and shapely legs. It’s not a clap of thunder or a chance meeting with a pros­titute in a library in Paris.”

“How would you know what it isn’t if you’ve never been there yourself?” I felt dizzy and precarious on my trunk.

“I’ve never felt love, but I’ve studied it,” he said. “In my line of work you pay attention to every human emotion the way doctors examine their patients. The desperation borne from hunger, for instance, is a powerful force that will turn the victim in on himself. It’s the desire to devour the source of the pain. The pang of nationalism can make

a man as blind and dense as a stone. He will cut off his own arm, kill his children, for a flag and a ten-cent song.”

“But what about love?” I really wanted to know.

“Love, as the poet says, is like the spring. It grows on you and seduces you slowly and gently, but it holds tight like the roots of a tree. You don’t know until you’re ready to go that you can’t move, that you would have to muti­late yourself in order to be free. That’s the feeling. It doesn’t last, at least it doesn’t have to. But it holds on like a steel claw in your chest. Even if the tree dies, the roots cling to you. I’ve seen men and women give up every­thing for love that once was.”

“And so you love somebody?” I asked. “That’s what brought you here?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t have that affliction. I’m here alone and there’s no one waiting or gone.”

“So then why are you talking about love then?”

“Because that’s the closest thing to what forced me into this cage. Everything else is immediate and measurable, pretty much. Fear, desperation, greed. I’m fifty-six years old, Charles. My first job was as an accountant in Saigon at the age of twenty-one. From there, on a forged Swiss passport, I got a job doing the same work for higher pay in Hanoi. My employers worried after accepting me that I was a spy. In order to test my loyalty, they brought me to a holding cell where there was an American sergeant held captive. They told me to kill him. They said that he had been sentenced to death anyway and that this was my first duty. And I shot him. I didn’t hesitate or flinch. I didn’t enjoy it or feel remorse. I just shot him.”

“Killed him?”

“Scared the shit out of the officer who brought me down there. He expected me to balk. But I took the pis­tol and shot the man in the head. I saw the lay of the board immediately. The man had been tortured. He was skinny and bloody and miserable. They would have killed him anyway.”

“Was it a black man?” I asked, wondering at the words even as I spoke them.

“I don’t know” was his reply.

“How can you not know?”

“It was a dark cell and he was filthy. His skin wasn’t black, but whether it was tanned or negroid I don’t know. I didn’t spend any time wondering about him. I took the pistol and shot. Then I left. The next seven years I worked back and forth across the borders of Communism and the West. That’s where I made my nest egg. I had two million dollars by the time I came back home. On top of that I had connections with millionaires, intelligence agencies, and political leaders. I even had a code name. They called me Sergeant Bilko because of my bald head and the fact that I could procure almost anything.”

“Are they after you?”


“The Americans. I mean, you were a traitor.”

“They don’t care about that. They dealt with me too. I got three prisoners out from captivity for a fee. .Asian com­munists are far more practical than the European variety.”

“You still haven’t explained why you want to be here.”

“I don’t want to be here, Charles. I have to be.”

“Because you shot that man?”

“No. I mean, that’s part of it. A small part. I’ve done a lot of things. Too many things. Sometimes it was that I did nothing. And now it’s too late. Like with love, it’s grown up all around me and I can’t get away.”

Again there was a break in Bennet’s armor. He became distant and misty. Not near tears but vulnerable.

“And you think being down here will help make up for it,” I said.


Through the diamonds of his cell Bennet took on the quality of a martyr. He was like one of those death-row in­mates that they interview just before the sentence is exe­cuted. You see all the evil that they caused, but you still feel like death is not the answer that killing this man would in some strange way take away his victims’ last hope.

But Bennet wasn’t going to die. He was on vacation. He was in the Hamptons for the summer. He was a thief and a murderer taking time off from his trade. This made me angry. I began to resent the arrogance of Bennet. How dare he think that by pretending to punish himself that he would somehow have answered for his crimes.

“Why here, Mr. Bennet? Why my house?”

There’s lots of reclamations in Africa, Charles. Dia­monds and oil, slave labor to cobble tennis shoes and as­semble fancy lamps. They have armies over there who will strip down to the waist and go hand to hand with bayo­nets and clubs. They have tribal factions and colonizers. The streets, in short, are paved with gold.”

“My house isn’t in Africa.”

“But you are a black man. You come from over there. I need a black face to look in on me. No white man has the right.”

“Suppose I was crazy? Suppose I hated white people and I decided to torture you in here and kill you?”

He shrugged again. “Killing is hard work, Charles. Children have the stamina for that kind of labor, but most mature men do not. Not unless there’s something to gain or if they’re in love.”

“You’re supposed to leave here in two days,” I said.

“Unless you change your mind.”

“Is this some kind of trick?” I asked. “Are you playing some kind of game on me?”

“No. I’m not, Charles. I’m simply executing a punish­ment. A repentance.”

“You don’t seem to be suffering to me.”

“You wouldn’t know,” he said. “But living locked up with no out, with no control over food. Most of the time you won’t even talk to me. And the world I live in is mov­ing on while I sleep. No one knows where I am. When I get out of here, it’s going to be hard on me.”

In a flash of intuition I asked, “Is somebody after you now, Mr. Bennet?”

He was struck and smiled to show it.

“No more than they’re looking for diamonds in Mon­tana.” He laughed.

I laughed too.

“So you’re a reclamation?” I asked.

“Can I have The Alexandria Quartet?” was his response. “No. Tonight it’s lights out and no book. Tonight you start your sentence for real and then we’ll see how much you really want to be here.”

A spasm twisted Bennet’s face for half a moment. Hardly long enough for me to be sure of it. But I believed my sudden assertiveness frightened the smug assassin. I knew that he was afraid of the locked door and the dark.

Readers will come away from The Man in My Basement thinking, which is exactly what a novel of ideas should encourage.

Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the April 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Man in My Basement.htm


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