The Right Mistake is the third Walter Mosley book to feature Los Angeles street-philosopher Socrates Fortlow, a man keenly aware of how finely balanced are the forces of good and evil doing battle within him. He has learned to live with a constant personal struggle to ensure that the good inside him maintains its upper hand on the evil he knows to be buried not so deeply in his heart, a struggle he does not always win.
Socrates Fortlow, by the time we catch up with him again, has spent some twenty-seven years of his life in prison for the crimes of murder and rape. He readily admits to the brutal rape and two murders that put him away and is somewhat surprised that he was ever allowed to see the light of day again as a free man. For several years now, Socrates lived a quiet life, determined to fly under the radar of Los Angeles law enforcement, and he is still somewhat surprised at his freedom. But now he has a new project, one that will turn him into a celebrity of sorts and is guaranteed to catch the suspicious eye of the LAPD to such an extent that it jeopardizes his freedom.
Socrates has boldly finagled for himself an all-but-free lease on a big tin-covered house, nicknamed the Big Nickel, that he wants to turn into a community center, a place large enough to host his new Thursday Night Thinkers’ Meetings. The Thinkers are a diverse group, most of them members at the personal invitation of Socrates, comprised of several races, religions, and economic backgrounds. The group includes professional gambler Billy Psalms, hugely successful and wealthy “junk dealer” Chaim Zetel, despised murderer Ronald Zeal, Zeal’s lawyer Cassie Wheaton, popular singer Marianne Lodz, respected carpenter Antonio Peron, and karate master Wan Tai. Led by Socrates, they come to the Big Nickel every Thursday night to discuss the world in which they all live and how they might change themselves in ways that would make that world a better place for all of them.
Socrates has put his group together in a way that cannot help but produce lively, often threatening, debate when the topic turns to race. In time, its members come to relish the arguments that allow them to see their lives in ways they would otherwise have never considered. As the Thinkers learn to respect each other as individuals instead of focusing on racial and social differences, meaningful relationships and support groups are formed. Even Socrates is challenged in a way he could never have foreseen.
Understandably, the LAPD cannot accept the possibility that nothing criminal is happening in the Big Nickel - there are simply too many known criminals coming and going from the place. Socrates has made the Big Nickel available to neighborhood gangs as a place to which they can come to safely negotiate their street differences. Known drug dealers and dangerous criminals like Ron Zeal are regulars. So sure that the Big Nickel is a way for Socrates to disguise his criminal activities, the department manages to place an undercover cop into the Thinkers, a decision that will indirectly lead to another murder trial for Socrates Fortlow.
What happens among those attending the Thursday night meetings will likely be seen as wishful thinking by some readers - a little too utopian for the real world, they will say. But what Walter Mosley describes is not impossible; hey, it could just happen. And Mosley has filled The Right Mistake with the kinds of people that will have readers wanting to believe that what he describes might actually happen someday, that one little corner of the world will become a better place because a man with nothing to lose decided to make a difference.
Socrates Fortlow is that man for his Watts neighborhood.