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.
In the pivotal A Little Yellow Dog, Mouse enters the usual climactic confrontation armed only with a meat cleaver and is fatally shot. Driven to kill off this deus ex machina as spirit of the race, Mosley didn't publish another Easy novel for six years. But although Mouse remains dead in the disoriented Bad Boy Brawly Brown, he haunts it--Easy can't stop wondering what Raymond would have done, or lacerating himself for his loss. Easy believes that if he hadn't drawn his friend into the mysteries that are a detective's fate, Mouse would still reign as king of the ghetto--admired by men and adored by women, although mellowing a bit because he killed his father and, blessed with a heart after all, feels bad about it.
The Fearless Jones novels of 2001 and 2003 turn on a safer, simpler version of the Easy-Mouse relationship, a dichotomy that recalls such pairings as Rex Stout's housebound Nero Wolfe and athletic Archie Goodwin. The cowardly bookstore owner Paris Minton is a less obsessive detective, with none of Easy's self-searching or violent undercurrent; the scarily intrepid Fearless Jones is a less avid killer, with a chivalrous code of honor. But Mosley couldn't stay away from his anima. For five installments of the deft Six Easy Pieces--six stories that originally baited six 2002 Easy reprints plus a new one to bait the collection--Easy tries to relocate a Mouse he can't believe is dead. In each he finds yet another murder instead, with killers who include a white security thug, the neglected teenage son of a crooked Cajun garage owner, an overprotective black mother and Mouse's widow. The sixth story begins with a rapping on the door. Mouse is so well named that 6-foot-2 Easy doesn't realize his friend has returned from the dead till he looks down. How about that? All it took to heal the little man's life-ending injury was the voodoo of Mama Jo, a conjure woman who dates back to Gone Fishin'.
Yet the two new Easy books find Mouse in a subdued mood, while Mama Jo emerges as more than a plot device. In Little Scarlet, about a redheaded black woman murdered during the Watts uprising, Mouse runs looted goods with a white partner, and Easy survives the big shootout alone; in Cinnamon Kiss, about the murder of a radical white lawyer in an Oakland abloom with hippies and interracial love, Mouse fails to lure Easy into an armored-car robbery and instead does the detective a series of favors that require his intelligence and his dangerous reputation but not his deadly force. As ever, Easy needs Mouse alive to feel fully alive. But now he handles the dirty work himself, and in both books Mama Jo, "like an African myth come to life in the New World," heals Easy's battered body with potions that "rivalled the medicines most doctors prescribed." African-American artifacts were major plot elements in The Man in My Basement and one Fearless Jones novel, and Mama Jo too embodies Mosley's turn from the survivalist cunning of black street knowledge to the visionary wisdom of black history. But note that her remedies "rival" the white man's rather than supplanting them; the premise of Cinnamon Kiss is that Easy needs big money to send his critically ill young daughter to a clinic in Switzerland.
Mosley is anything but a separatist. In Bad Boy Brawly Brown, Easy disentangles a friend's son from black-nationalist gangsters who call themselves the First Men, and the integration that comes with the civil rights movement excites Mosley's closest scrutiny. After leapfrogging from 1948, the last four Easy novels take place in 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1966. In Little Scarlet Easy hunts down a homeless serial killer whose parents passed for white but who turned out too dark-skinned to maintain their cover. And though the bad guys in Cinnamon Kiss are Nazi collaborators and their enablers, its racial intricacies are unmappable. The murderer is a white public-interest lawyer with eyes for Easy. The title character is an optimistic, ambitious, sexually pragmatic young African-American woman who by the end is preparing to rise to the top of a New York brokerage, presaging the coming black capitalism in all its expedient hedonism. A black ex-soldier doing penance for the Vietnamese village he destroyed has adopted the little girl who was its sole survivor. And then there's Robert E. Lee, a mean, rich, shady white PI who leaves Easy wondering who's the better man because he can forgive his woman for trying to kill him when Easy can't even live with an infidelity.
Mosley was 13 when he watched his father fight the urge to go out and join the Negroes trashing Watts's crude joke of an infrastructure, and he was a full-fledged adolescent by Summer of Love time--just old enough to fall into the trap of romanticizing his own hopeful youth and the historical hopes it fed off. So though you could say he has gotten hung up savoring the moment when integration became a reality--one twist of Little Scarlet is the credibility Easy has gained with the white cops who've dogged him since his first case--you could also say he can't bear what happened next. The Socrates Fortlow books Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned and Walking the Dog, their protagonist a repentant murderer back on the streets after twenty-seven years in stir, present today's black LA as a disaster zone where brave souls still carve out lives worth living. Both are winning and satisfying but, relative to the Rawlins novels, slender. As someone who anticipated Zolaesque Rawlins reaching into the present, I wish Mosley would move on. We need Easy's take on the poverty programs, Maulana Ron Karenga, the integration (and Latinization) of LA politics, the crack epidemic, Bill Cosby and O.J. Simpson and Rodney King and Maxine Waters and Suge Knight. I'd also love to meet the little guys Mosley would devise--the unemployed grifters and middle-class aspirants, the thugs and fiends, maybe finally even a few gays. The '60s were something, but excavate them too obsessively and you idealize them in spite of yourself.
One avenue of escape from this trap has been Mosley's "serious" novels, all set in the present. And though the first two take place in or near New York, where Mosley has resided since 1982, Fortunate Son returns to LA, as does the new science fiction The Wave. Like all of Mosley's ventures into shameless respectability, Fortunate Son is too schematic, essentially a fable. It's even more so than The Man in My Basement, where Sag Harbor's racial history and narrator Charles Blakey's self-destructive anomie provide welcome content, and RL's Dream, a nadir, not least because its romanticized bluesman reflects the same puritanical indifference to contemporary music Mosley deplored in his recent Nation essay (apparently somebody forced some hip-hop on him in the meantime). In Fortunate Son, Mosley's depiction of the private world the black brother creates in a secluded alley when he's just 6, of his homeless years, and even of his job in a barbecue restaurant counteract the novel's penchant for fantasy, which dictates that the crippled black brother is at key junctures incredibly lucky and the hale white brother is so gifted that nothing is denied him except happiness. Vivid and enticing, that alley sticks in the mind. But the plot sits poorly. Even in the detective novels, a villain like the ruthless favor dealer Kronin Stark would be a bit much. It's too bad Mosley needs him here--and that Stark bears a suspicious resemblance to Anniston Bennet, the man in Charles Blakey's basement. It could even be argued that where Mosley gets truly serious is in his critically neglected science fiction.
Extraordinary villainy and supernatural fantasy have long bubbled beneath the surface in Mosley's work. From the start many plots have hinged on evil in high places, and few detective novelists describe so many dreams. The Fearless Jones and Socrates Fortlow books remain outlets for his old realist faith. But in Cinnamon Kiss, both the superrich Nazi and Mama Jo ratchet up his wilder tendencies, and in the sci-fi and the related 47 they take over. The slave plantation of 47 has zero room for anything but brutal, endless, unremitting labor, and in the science fiction--1998's Blue Light, 2001's Futureland and now The Wave--the heroes battle governments whose ruthlessness differs from that of a slave owner only in magnitude and scope. Yet three of the four also encompass extra-planetary energies that feel distinctly religious. In 47 it's a brother from another galaxy called Tall John--John the Conqueroo with fancier technology. In the sci-fi it's variations on a magical wave-force charged with assuring the fate of life throughout the universe. The detective-novel and science-fiction impulses are so antithetical that this notion may alienate Easy fans, and its limitations show in The Wave, an ambitious combination of futuristic horror story and mystical fairy tale into which Mosley mixes his recent life project of raising his father from the dead. But Blue Light is more substantial. Beginning in the Berkeley of the high '60s, it's an oblique tribute to a hippiedom envisioned as struggling salvation of a multicultural humankind.
Blue Light's battle between extraterrestrial forces is humanized and politicized in the little-noticed Futureland, which though clumsier structurally than Six Easy Pieces is packed with the indelible images that are the special province of the best science fiction. Where Mosley's other sci-fi is premised on an optimism in which brave men and women prevail over imminent world-death, Futureland is a nightmare--a disturbingly recognizable surveillance dystopia where adults indenture themselves to buy their parents medical care, the jobless are banished to underground warrens and justice is dispensed by computers. The longest story begins by describing the nine-hour workday of a "labor nervosa" sufferer in a windowless prod station hundreds of stories off the ground--details all too readily projected from the rationalized drudgery of post-union America. Futureland fills in the outlines of Mosley's increasingly grim and detailed political vision, and however Bushlike its setup may seem, it was completed during the presidency of Bill Clinton, whose public enthusiasm for the first Rawlins books made Mosley's career. Although Mosley detests Bush and his world war (see 2003's What Next), here the deepest evil is corporate (see 2000's Workin' on the Chain Gang). The plot is demonized B-thriller like The Formula or The Net, but the imagery is as vivid as Blade Runner or Soylent Green. As in most recent Mosley, the good guys come in many colors. But the finale, "The Nig in Me," goes back to what he knows. An international white-supremacist movement develops a virus that will kill everyone of African heritage, but a black scientist reverses the formula--instead, only those at least 12.5 percent African can survive. Having failed to save his white cubicle mate, the black protagonist encounters "three swarthy-looking white men." "Hey, nig!" they shout before shooting at him, and he escapes into the woods. The book ends with a one-sentence paragraph: "The world had started over."
It's a truism that the American detective novel admits existential doubt where the classic British model snaps shut like a jewel box. But recent history has eroded our greatest detective novelist's tolerance for the provisional. That's why he can't extricate his signature character from the '60s, why he dreams godlike interventions. Amid these stratagems, however, Mosley's attachment to social and physical detail continues to ground him. Blue Light gets the '60s; The Wave evokes LA quasi-bohemia before diving into its mysteries; Little Scarlet and Cinnamon Kiss satisfy even an Easy fan like me, who--forget Zola--wants the series to turn into Balzac. My own best hope is that Mosley's science fiction will texture cyberpunk on the William Gibson model while his detective fiction grows old with an Easy Rawlins who settles down with his better half. But I suspect Mosley has more in mind for himself than that.
The Nation, May 8, 2006