The Tempest Tales

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Walter Mosley, Black Classic Press, £16.99

Walter Mosley is one of the most prolific US authors of today. Best known for his series of crime novels featuring reluctant private detective Easy Rawlins, he has also written science fiction, children's books and non-fiction essays reflecting critically on the state of the US and its role in the world.

A characteristic feature of Mosley's novels is black men hustling to survive against the odds in a hostile world. Far from being saintly superheroes, these men display very human failings. They lust after women, drink hard and break the law frequently. Tempest Landry, the principal character in this novel, is no exception. We are told in the opening lines that before he died, at the tender age of 34, Tempest fathered 14 children by his wife, his "steady girlfriend" and "various other women". In addition, he committed thefts, assaulted men and was handling stolen goods at the very moment he took his dying breath.

The Tempest Tales features a heavenly figure, quite literally, in the form of the narrator, Joshua Angel. He returns to earth with a reincarnated Tempest when the latter refuses to accept his banishment to Hell after his appearance at the celestial court to face judgment. Tempest is unrepentant about his alleged transgressions and angry about the circumstances of his violent death at the hands of the police.

Angel is determined to show Tempest that his misdemeanours have proved fatal to any hopes of entering Paradise. Moreover, there is a desperate urgency to his mission. If Tempest succeeds in overturning his confinement the consequence will be to bring the whole edifice of Heaven crashing down. Angel's fundamental problem is that while he can account for Tempest's transgressions his lack of human experience precludes him from understanding them.

This battle of wills provides the setting within which the author embarks upon an extended meditation upon the concept of good and evil. In a series of brief, tightly scripted chapters featuring Mosley's signature lean dialogue, he exposes the moralistic inflexibility of Christianity with its concept of the seven deadly sins.

At a more earthly level he lays bare and attacks the duplicity of a ruling elite that forces people to "live like we was in prison and then get mad when we steal".

Dedicated to Langston Hughes, one of the great figures of the early 20th century Harlem Renaissance, this short, sharp book presents a damning commentary on the role of religion, race, class and political power in society today.