The Right Mistake by Walter Mosley #BookReview

Living in South Central L.A., Socrates Fortlow is a sixty-year-old ex-convict, still strong enough to kill men with his bare hands. Now freed after serving twenty-seven years in prison, he is filled with profound guilt about his own crimes and disheartened by the chaos of the streets. Along with his gambler friend Billy Psalms, Socrates calls together local people of all races from their different social stations–lawyers, gangsters, preachers, Buddhists, businessmen–to conduct meetings of a Thinkers’ Club, where all can discuss the unanswerable questions in life.The street philosopher enjoins his friends to explore–even in the knowledge that there’s nothing that they personally can do to change the ways of the world–what might be done anyway, what it would take to change themselves. Infiltrated by undercover cops, and threatened by strain from within, tensions rise as hot-blooded gangsters and respectable deacons fight over issues of personal and social responsibility. But simply by asking questions about racial authenticity, street justice, infidelity, poverty, and the possibility of mutual understanding, Socrates and his unlikely crew actually begin to make a difference.

Title: The Right Mistake | Author: Walter Mosley | Series: Socrates Fortlow #3 | Publisher: Basic Civitas Books | Pages: 269 | ISBN: 9780465005253 | Publication date: 2008 | Source: Purchased

I’m really in awe of Walter Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow books. This, the third and I suspect the last, is just as good as the first two. It’s insightful, powerful, philosophical, and utterly compelling. 

Like its predecessors, ‘Aways Outnumbered, Always Outgunned’ and ‘Walkin the Dog’, ‘The Right Mistake’ is an LA set collection of related short stories about the life of ex-con Socrates Fortlow. In this book, Fortlow is running a centre helping local people in the neighbourhood he lives in. He has become a leader, something that would have surprised me at the start of his journey, but which now feels like a natural progression. The stories focus on his relationship with a young woman and on the people who help him at the centre. They also cover extensively his interactions with the police, who hound him throughout the book. 

Fortlow is a remarkable character, completely believable despite being somewhat iconic. He’s wise and determined, his words and actions measured and filled with a stoicism and intelligence that leaps off the page and lingers. The political side of the books has always been there, but it comes to the fore in this book in an incredible speech from Fortlow about race, racial identity and prejudice. It’s masterfully written and very powerful, all the more so because it has more questions than it does answers. 

Taken together the books are an amazing achievement. They have the readability of the best popular fiction combined with the striking intelligence and political message of something like Ibram X Kendi’s ‘How to be an Anti-racist’. Beyond that, Fortlow’s gradual growth and redemption is truly inspirational. He’s a memorable, convincing character who is honest about his own shortcomings without descending into introspective self-pity. This is crime fiction that gets to the heart of the genre. It’s about the impact our actions, good and bad, have on those around us. About the importance of forgiveness. About how the structures of our society and legal systems shape lives. It’s brilliant. 

5/5

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