Walter Mosley’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey: A Cop’s Eye Review
I enjoy a variety of books written by a variety of authors, and I like a variety of genres. I know, you probably expected that I’d stick to crime-type novels featuring cops, robbers, mystery, and gun battles. Actually, my sagging bookshelves are filled with everything from biographies to memoirs to mystery, suspense, thrillers, and even the classics. I like Agatha Christie, Mark Twain and Poe. I also like Annie Proulx’s writing. The Shipping News is a fantastic book, as is Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants. Poetry has a permanent place on my shelves, nestled among novels, true crime tales and other non-fiction.
My favorite authors include many of you, and that list is practically endless.
When I open a book I want to go on a journey with the characters. I want their words to take me away from the troubles of the world, and it doesn’t hurt if they also send my emotions on a brief roller coaster ride.
I do think I tend to look at books from a perspective that’s different than that of the average reader. I say this, because in my lifetime I’ve experienced a good deal of things that most people do not. In fact, many of those experiences haven’t been at all pleasant. And I certainly hope you never have to see or learn of those things first hand. I won’t go into detail, but I will say that my experiences have provided me with the opportunity to meet an array of people, both good and bad, with some living their lives in the middle of the road.
As an investigator, I’ve had the opportunity to study a wide variety of people, prying into their backgrounds, learning their innermost secrets and private behaviors. I’ve searched for weaknesses and strengths, and throughout my career I’ve found that the ability to “read” people can be the key to solving crime. And, the ability to read people—to understand their motivations and actions and why they do what they do—makes me look at characters in books as if they were living, breathing people. It’s a habit. I take the time to study an author’s characters and their behaviors—the way they speak and move, their thoughts (if the author allows us to see them), and how the characters interact with others on the page.
Walter Mosley is an author whose characters ring very true to me. He has an uncanny ability to use dialog, dialect, and setting to breathe life into his stories. Sure, other writers are able to achieve similar results, but it is Mosley who somehow knows the “walk and the talk” that many others can’t quite seem to grasp.
The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey is the story of an elderly black man who’s walking that fine line between dementia and reality. At 91, the walk is quite difficult, and Ptolemy often slips to the bad side of the line. He’s both physically and mentally frail—as fragile as a tiniest of silk threads.
A man of Ptolemy’s age did most of his living when times were different than what today’s generation experiences. It was a time when black men and women were treated badly and unfairly, even more so than what goes on today. Mr. Grey’s mind slips between today and “back then.” One moment he’s living in his filthy rat- and roach-infested apartment in a crappy L.A. neighborhood where muggings are part of daily life, and in the next instant he’s back in Mississippi watching as a mob lynches and sets fire to his beloved uncle and mentor.
Grey sleeps on the floor beneath the kitchen table because there’s no room anywhere else in the cluttered apartment. Besides, his bedroom is the room he shared with his precious wife who died long ago. He couldn’t stand the thought of sleeping in the same bed where he opened his eyes and saw her laying beside him, dead.
Ptolemy Grey’s days consist of listening to a single news station on the TV, and a classical music station on the radio. He doesn’t change the channels because he doesn’t know how to return the dials to his favorites. His entire world revolves around the war in Iraq and Mozart, and young healthy men killing one another in the streets over drugs and money.
Grey’s grandnephew, Reggie, is his only connection to the outside world. Reggie drops by once in a while to take the frail old man to do his grocery shopping. Grey’s life is quickly turned topsy-turvey, though, when Reggie is killed in a drive-by shooting. Another nephew shows up to help Grey with his shopping, but he steals most of his uncle’s cash, thinking the old man won’t know the difference. This nephew also takes Grey to Reggie’s wake where Ptolemy, a child in an old man’s body, meets a 17-year-old girl, Robyn, who is all alone in the world. The two form an instant bond and Robyn takes it upon herself to help Ptolemy regain and retain his dignity during his final days.
Ptolemy is obsessed with “making things right” with his life before he dies, and he knows the time is near. He’s nearly 92, after all. And he’s aware that he slips between today and “back then.” He understands that he sometimes gets confused and doesn’t remember the simple things.
So, Robyn gives Grey’s apartment a thorough cleaning, and she sees to it that Ptolemy’s basic needs are met. She takes him to a doctor who offers the old man an experimental drug that will tame the dementia, but only for a short while, because the drug will eventually kill him. Grey agrees, believing he’d made a deal with Satan, and he begins his quest to make things right. With a new found spring in his step, Grey also decides to seek revenge against the man who killed Reggie.
The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey is a love story. It’s also a story where the reader is allowed to see the world through the eyes of someone suffering from dementia. It’s about family (or the lack of), and their selfishness and/or selflessness. It’s a tale that kept me turning the pages until I had the last one in hand, wishing for more.
Walter Mosley delivered Ptolemy Grey to the world back in 2010 when this book was first published, and meeting him was an extraordinary experience for me, because as a police detective I’ve met numerous Ptolemy Grey’s—each living in squalor, desperately trying to speak the words they once knew. They were frail men who could barely shuffle their way from a kitchen littered with dirty glasses, cracked plates, and iron skillets caked with bacon grease and rodent droppings, to the bedroom where a 5-gallon lard tin served as a toilet. Their nephews and nieces stole their guv’ment checks and made fun when their uncle’s sentences came out as a jumble of nonsensical babble.
To many, Ptolemy Grey is merely a character in a book. However, there’s a real-life Ptolemy Grey living somewhere near you. Sure, his name will be different. In fact, the neighborhood kids probably call him Mr. Jones, or Mr. Taylor. But they’ll all know where the old man with the walking stick lives. The old man who says crazy things at times.
Don’t believe he exists in your town? Well, ask a police officer if he/she knows him. I’ll bet they do.
*The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey was published in 2010. It’s just as powerful today as it was then.
I’m with Gayle, heart breaking just to read the review. My Mother is beginning dementia, though I do not really see it much yet. She lives 400 miles away, so my brother sees it more.
I volunteer for a group and my recent match with them is for a man who is blind and has short term memory loss. He ask my name a few times each visit. It has been four visits, and he is asking a little less now. He can recall older things remarkably. Hope science can understand and help with these types of ailments one day.
No, it’s a great story. You really shouldn’t miss it.
I’m with Gayle. I think it would hurt too much to read!
Man. My heart is breaking for this guy and all I’ve read is your review. I love Mosley but I don’t know if I have the strength to read this novel.
Walter Mosley is easily one of the best American writers alive, in any genre (he covers several).
They are numerous as you know Lee. Many have crossed my desk over the years and continue to do so. Many are not found until days or weeks after they have died when eventually someone finally notices the smell, or the flies all over the windows and the ‘nephew’ has not been around to check on him.
Beautiful and painful in equal measure, hard and tender, universal in its specificity. Like all true things, a paradox. What a tribute to what is obviously a fine book.