A Darker Shade of Noir
Walter Mosley is a 54-year-old former computer programmer with a BA in political science who must live in fear that he took up writing too late. In just sixteen years Mosley has published a mind-boggling twenty-three books: eight detective novels and one story collection featuring his signature character, the African-American sleuth-janitor-landlord Easy Rawlins; a portrait of Rawlins as a young man in East Texas; two lesser detective novels that pair the brainy Paris Minton with the steely Fearless Jones; two sets of linked stories featuring the do-gooding ex-con Socrates Fortlow; two science-fiction novels and one linked science-fiction collection; a science-fiction-tinged historical novel for teens; two political tracts; and three "serious" novels--RL's Dream, about a dying bluesman cared for by a young white secretary in New York City; The Man in My Basement, about a white fixer-financier who voluntarily imprisons himself in a black drunk's Sag Harbor home; and the brand-new Fortunate Son, about intimately connected, diametrically opposed black and white stepbrothers. The past two years have been especially fruitful. After an eight-year drought that produced one Rawlins detective novel, Mosley has brought forth two excellent new ones, Little Scarlet and Cinnamon Kiss. He's also produced the slavery-themed young-adult 47 and, this year, the sci-fi fantasy The Wave and Fortunate Son.
Though the literary novels get respect, Mosley's reputation rests mostly on the Rawlins books, as it should. Starting in 1948 and proceeding by multiyear leaps to 1961, Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death, White Butterfly and Black Betty chronicle a Los Angeles in which the artificial boundaries of de facto segregation are transgressed in disastrous secrecy. In four narrowly spaced subsequent novels, that secrecy starts to dissipate. These eight historically evolving books constitute the finest detective oeuvre in American literature, surpassing even that of card-carrying formalist Hammett and dwarfing Chandler and Leonard and Macdonald. Even to an old-fashioned English major with an atavistic craving for greatness in fiction, they're pretty great, applying quick, meaty prose to plots rich in cultural and social detail.
Because Mosley writes to be understood and loves the way the world looks, feels and tastes, he's always a pleasure to read, but the Easy novels go down easiest. That's the attraction of a genre in which one's hunger to find out what happens next defeats the fatigue of reading as a task. In Mosley, however, the pull isn't the mystery--he's not an especially deft plotter, with denouements that turn on racial ambiguities almost as often as Ross Macdonald's turn on skeletons in the closet, and he doesn't play the puzzler's game of dropping hints about whodunit. The fascination isn't who but how and why--moral drama in page-turner mode. Easy is a genuinely amateur detective who often finds himself questioning neighbors he knows slightly or well, and Mosley is so interested in these people that his hero hangs out a lot more than professional investigators like Sue Grafton's efficient Kinsey Millhone. Whereas Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe looks askance at the sleazy, shallow LA he romanticizes, Mosley feels the struggles and screw-ups of all his black characters and many of his white ones. The nearest fictional counterpart to his portrayal of working-class travails compounded by racist pathology is the wartime black LA of Chester Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go--as opposed to the gritty cartoon Harlem Himes imagined for black cops Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Mosley has admitted to Zolaesque ambitions for the Easy series, and he's sometimes Dickensian in his fond eye for how people get by.
But Mosley is more than a social realist in genre disguise. For him, culture is complicated by psychology, especially Easy's. Easy respects everyday lives because he longs for one. He has a highly unsleuthlike domestic side--handy around the house, he loves to prepare simple, tasty food that grows more sophisticated as the series progresses, and he has adopted two children orphaned by early cases. But his love life is troubled by the same inner turmoil and inability to trust that fuels his compulsion to comprehend America's racial maelstrom and morass. With a nod to le Carré's George Smiley, there is no knottier character in pop fiction. Even so, however, Rawlins falls short by the standards of the canonical; he's less complex than Raskolnikov or Hurstwood, Jane Somers or Mr. Biswas. That's one reason he so needs his alter ego, who is my nominee for Mosley's most memorable creation: Raymond Alexander, a k a Mouse.
If a character is supposed to have an inner life, Mouse barely qualifies; in the Bildungsroman Gone Fishin', Rawlins calls his best friend "the only man I ever knew who didn't have a heart at all." The slight, natty, gray-eyed, light-skinned, sexually irresistible, murderous Mouse is less a character than a force of culture, an amoral and apparently immortal orisha who's always there at the end to save Easy from his own misreadings, insecurities and equivocations--often by killing people who may not require killing. Mouse doesn't worry about who deserves what because if he did he'd be dead by now. Late in Devil in a Blue Dress, he angrily tells Easy to watch out for the white man in him. "You be thinkin' that what's right fo' them is right fo' you.... A nigger ain't never gonna be happy 'less he accept what he is."
Like many black artists, Mosley is of two minds about questions of racial identity. As a committed race man, he's worked with PEN and CUNY to foster black writing and publishing and co-edited the 1999 essay collection Black Genius. But he's all too aware that categorizing (to choose an example he's cited himself) Toni Morrison as a black writer is to suggest that she should therefore be judged by looser standards than Doris Lessing or Saul Bellow. And for Mosley, the impossible question of identity has an additional dimension, because Mosley is black only by the one-drop rule of a racist culture. Fact is, Mosley is biracial--his father, who died in 1993, was "black," which here in America almost never means 100 percent African, while his mother is white, Jewish with her share of communist relatives. Here in America, however, biracial equals black, and Mosley knows it. Hence, Mouse. If white America defines Easy as black, then Easy had better accept that Mouse's stereotype informs how he, Easy Rawlins, is perceived. Nor is Mouse merely a caricature of how white America sees blackness--Easy loves Mouse, admires Mouse and identifies with Mouse. And though the memoir material in What Next makes clear that Easy is more a projection of the author's father than of the author himself, Mosley clearly shares Easy's feelings.
At around the time Mosley was inventing Mouse, hip-hop cliques nationwide, particularly in LA, were modernizing the Stagger Lee myth through the prism of Superfly, The Mack and Scarface. Collectively, they created that now ubiquitous cultural figure, the gangsta. Though separated by many decades, Mouse and the gangsta are brothers. Their lawless, apolitical "blackness" mocks the meliorist dreams of the talented tenth and its hard-working, well-churched foot soldiers. It gets them just deserts on terms they define. As Mosley puts it: "Raymond was proof that a black man could live by his own rules in America when everyone else denied it." True, even the most self-aware gangstas--Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, Ghostface Killah--have proudly claimed the "reality" of the role, whereas Mouse remains a fictional device so lovingly fleshed out you long for him to reappear so you can watch Mosley put him through his paces. But Mouse is so crucial to the Easy books that it's not altogether clear who's in control--he's like an anima Mosley can't get away from.