Picks and Pans Review: The Man in My Basement

updated 02/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Walter Mosley

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Some writers grow cautious with success; not Mosley. In 1998 he briefly jilted the popular Easy Rawlins series, tapped his inner Ray Bradbury and produced Blue Light, an intriguing but often dense sci-fi novel. With The Man in My Basement Mosley revisits the bizarre, crafting a chilling tale told with the wry economy and psychological zing of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone.

Submitted for your approval: one Charles Blakey, a 33-year-old black American who drinks too much and works too little, a ne'er-do-well living somewhere between sloth and self-knowledge. A liar and a thief, Charles has borrowed against his family's 200-year-old Sag Harbor home and is now months behind on the payments. Enter a shady businessman, Anniston Bennet of Greenwich, Conn. He is both courteous and curt, a man used to getting his way and inexplicably interested in renting Blakey's dungeonlike basement for a couple of months. For the opportunity, he offers to pay nearly $50,000. The catch: With Blakey's assistance, Bennet plans to install a prison cell—and move into it.

And that's just one of many twists in this smart, deceptively simple fable about power, evil and humanity. From the contentious exchanges between Bennet and Blakey, scattered bits of mother wit (a mean white man is so cold "he could take a bath in ice water and still take his whiskey on the rocks") and pointed references to Ellison's Invisible Man and Melville's Moby Dick, Mosley builds a remarkable story that considers race but is ultimately focused on individual responsibility.

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