With ‘Last Days,’ Mosley exchanges hard times for mystery

By Joseph Peschel
Globe Correspondent / December 14, 2010

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Walter Mosley is the well-known writer of several mysteries, but his new novel is, according to his publisher, serious literary fiction. It’s about a 91-year-old black man, Ptolemy Grey, who is in the early stages of dementia. Ptolemy lives by himself in a run-down Los Angeles neighborhood in a health disaster of an apartment and can barely take care of himself. He has memory problems, short- and long-term, and is continually “going places in his mind.’’ After his great-grandnephew, Reggie, who had been helping him, is killed in a drive-by shooting, a 17-year-old girl named Robyn takes care of him. For a time, Ptolemy recovers his mind, his life, and his fortune.

Mosley comes close to depicting the confusion of dementia, but often Ptolemy’s memories seem no different from any literary character’s memories — just ordinary flashbacks and stream of consciousness. We’re always on the cusp of feeling Ptolemy’s anguish, especially when he recalls Coy McCann, his boyhood friend and confidant. But Mosley seldom gives us more than a glimpse at Ptolemy’s memories. This novel could have been an interesting story of the predicament of the poor, black, and elderly in contemporary America. Unfortunately, it’s superficial, riddled with plot cliches, and eventually becomes a mediocre revenge story.

After his wife’s death about three decades ago, Ptolemy covered everything in her bedroom with a tarp and locked her room. He’s seen a lot of death — death beside him in bed, death in a fire, death on a lynch-mob’s rope. He sleeps on the floor, his toilet is backed up, and the place is filled with garbage and infested with bugs.

It’s terrible that an elderly man, or anyone, could choose to live this way for nearly 30 years, but he survives on a monthly retirement check of $211.41 and Social Security. Everyone — strangers and his own relatives — steals or tries to steal from him. Robyn isn’t a relative, but she treats Ptolemy better than his own blood. She cleans the apartment and helps the old man set up his bank accounts.

Sure enough, Ptolemy has kept a nest egg — almost $94,000. He has another treasure of gold, which, incredulously, dwarfs his savings. I can believe the $94,000, which Ptolemy plans to use to help his family and his friends. But a bag of gold coins from the Civil War and even before it? Aurum ex machina?

Robyn genuinely loves Ptolemy, doesn’t want his money, and wishes he’d get better. And he does. A lot better. But it’s not because of his improved living conditions and not because he’s found someone who really loves him. He makes a deal with “Satan,’’ actually Dr. Ruben, who gives him a miracle drug: “It’s dangerous, and would be illegal if the FDA knew about it.’’ The drug may or may not work, it might kill him, and he will get it in exchange for the medical use of his body after he’s dead, which will be sooner, not later. Soon his memory is better than most humans’. His mind clear, he concocts a plan to find Reggie’s killer and the story devolves into a story with the incongruous genre elements of an Easy Rawlins mystery. It’s a shame: Ptolemy’s last days could have been much more.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at or at


Riverhead, 288 pp., $25.95