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With hunting 'Basement,' Mosley explores new terrain

As Walter Mosley's tense new novel begins, Charles Blakey is, in the words of a concerned friend, one more missed mortgage payment away from "sleepin' in someone's garage, eatin' day-old bread, and drinkin' Brand X." Charles hasn't worked since losing his job at a bank, and he's close to losing the only home he's ever known, a house on Long Island's Sag Harbor that his family has owned for seven generations.

That's why he ultimately accepts an offer from a man who wants to rent the basement in Charles's home. Powerful and rich, Anniston Bennet, Charles observes, is "one of those no-nonsense-white-men-in-charge" types accustomed to getting his way. He certainly isn't the kind of person who rents a house, let alone an old basement, in a down-on-his-luck black man's house. Charles reluctantly agrees because he needs the money, while Bennet is seeking something far more elusive and disquieting.

What slowly unfolds between these two very different men provides the haunting core of "The Man in My Basement." For those most familiar with Mosley's mysteries, especially his Easy Rawlins novels such as "Devil in a Blue Dress," this unusual novel may seem a departure.

Yet Mosley, who has quietly become one of this nation's finest writers, has always been closer in literary spirit to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson than to Agatha Christie. Like Wilson's, Mosley's works explore what it means to be an African-American through the daily lives of ordinary people.

Until accepting Bennet's offer, Charles leads a life that is mostly about drinking cheap liquor and playing cards for pennies with his pals, Clarence and Ricky. He lives alone, and has neither a wife nor children. At 33, he still sleeps in the same bed in his childhood room. His last good job, as a bank teller, ended when his boss rightly suspected him of embezzling. Though he was never prosecuted -- it was only a few hundred dollars -- gossip about Charles's misdeed makes it impossible for him to get another job. He is a man with few prospects and even less ambition.

"My aunt Peaches would lend me the money to cover the monthly mortgage to the bank," Charles says. "I'd borrowed on the house and Peaches wouldn't let the property slip out of family hands. But if I had to go to her, she'd give me all kinds of grief about how I should get a job and how disappointed my father would have been to see me falling apart like I was."

And so, after initially declining Bennet's offer, he calls the small, genial man. Bennet makes very specific demands -- and to reveal the most bizarre of these would ruin Mosley's methodical plot. As apprehensive as Charles is about this man who, like all rich white men "wore lies like clothes," he cannot turn down the $50,000 in cash that Bennet promises for a 65-day stay in Charles's basement.

"Anniston Bennet wanted to live the hermit's life in a two-hundred-year-old cellar. I needed the money," Charles says. "I tried to think about what Mother would advise, but all I could come up with was a sad face and a deep sigh, a beseeching look that said I hoped I did right."

Once Bennet settles into Charles's basement, the two men engage in pointed quid pro quo conversations, reminiscent of serial killer Hannibal Lecter and FBI agent Clarice Starling in "Silence of the Lambs." In these provocative exchanges, Mosley takes his time, revealing Bennet as someone of terrible power and influence, the kind of man who with an order or a gesture can have a devastating effect on national or world events.

"The Man in My Basement" isn't just a verbal duel between Charles and Bennet. Mosley has created rich, vivid characters in Charles's life such as his 80-year-old neighbor, Irene Littleneck -- always perched on her porch, always minding Charles's business. And then there's Narciss Gully, an antiques dealer who helps Charles discover his family's ancestry when she sorts through what he sees as junk in his basement.

His main two characters evolve, but Mosley is smart enough to avoid cliched epiphanies. His achievement in "The Man in My Basement" is to find suspense in the psychological and philosophical motives of his characters as they wrestle with history and heritage, responsibility and redemption.

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