Walter Mosley is frequently a tremendous author. His Easy Rawlins mysteries are among the best the genre has produced in the last 25 years, and he has a real knack for picking up on how people speak and translating that into perfectly realized dialogue. But in recent years, Mosley’s works have seemed more and more scattered. They’re interesting, but rarely as focused as he can be at his best. It’s as if he’s scrambling to get all the ideas in his head out on paper before some cataclysm only he knows about.
Mosley’s latest, The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey, falls into the same pitfall as his other 2010 novel, Known To Evil. That was the latest in his new crime-fiction series based around ex-criminal Leonid McGill, and even though the plotting was all over the place, Mosley’s talent for creating great characters and putting fun conversations in their mouths was enough to carry the book through its scattered patches. Sadly, Ptolemy Grey doesn’t have enough of those virtues.
To a degree, the book is hampered by the fact that the entire plot is present in the title. Ptolemy Grey is a 91-year-old man of addled mind and messy apartment, who’s shocked to discover that the great-nephew who cares for him has been killed. While attending the nephew’s funeral, he meets a young friend of the family, a teenage girl named Robyn, who immediately takes a shine to him and begins a chaste romantic friendship with the old man. (It’s a credit to Mosley’s skill that he makes this seem normal and not creepy.) Robyn helps Ptolemy clean the festering piles of junk out of his apartment, then finds him a doctor to give him pills that will help him regain the use of his mind just long enough to set everything in his life straight. After making his deal with this particular devil, Ptolemy spends around two-thirds of the book thinking about doing stuff, before eventually doing it in the last 20 pages.
This isn’t all bad. Mosley’s portrayal of Ptolemy’s dementia is well-handled, as is the way he slips in little snippets of things that don’t make sense when Ptolemy’s pills aren’t kicking in like they should, and the cloud threatens to overtake his brain again. Furthermore, Ptolemy is a solid character, though Robyn is often too impossibly saintly to be believable. The rest of the characters in their lives are all bitter old stereotypes who exist only to sap Ptolemy of his hard-won money, but the central duo (and the people in Ptolemy’s memories) work well enough for most of the book.
Still, Mosley doesn’t seem to have any idea what kind of story he wants to tell here. At one point, the book is about a sort of treasure hunt. At another, it’s about finding a way to heal the wounds from centuries of mistreatment of African-Americans. At still another, it’s about Ptolemy trying to make sure his family is cared for. Abruptly, toward the end, it swerves into a murder mystery, though even Mosley seems to realize how obvious the answer here is. There are a lot of potentially fascinating stories in this one novel, but Mosley’s inability to hold onto any one of them gets away from him, until his story resembles his protagonist’s headspace far too much.