April 2005

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Black and Blue: Walter Mosley and the Mean Streets of Los Angeles

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Despite my hard-earned love of mysteries and crime novels, I’m not altogether fond of Los Angeles. It’s a quirk that even surprises me sometimes because L.A. is where the genre was born. The shiny new city was home to a range of investigators from Raymond Chander’s Phillip Marlowe to Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer. The self-described “Demon Dog of American Literature,” James Ellroy, has practically reinvented the city’s history with his L.A. Quartet and more recently it’s been home to Robert Crais’s wisecracking PI Elvis Cole and dozens of other American detectives treading in Chandler & Hammett’s hardboiled shoes.

Unfortunately, it’s such a spread-out metropolis in constant flux that it’s hard to summon a lot of feeling for it. From Wilshire Boulevard to Watts, it’s always demolishing its brick and replacing it with steel or burning down neighborhoods to leave scars that don’t heal. I caught a trailer for Crash recently in which Graham, voiced by the unparalleled Don Cheadle, talks about the sense of disconnection in the city.

“It’s the sense of touch,” he says. “In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass.”

It’s strange coincidence then that it’s Cheadle who once portrayed the best character ever written by one of the best writers, period, to come out of Los Angeles. In 1995’s Devil In A Blue Dress, Cheadle transformed himself into Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, a cutthroat killer who haunts the life of his best friend, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. It’s a good film in which Denzel Washington does solid work as Easy but any adaptation was never going to measure up to the spare, dark prose of its creator, Walter Mosley.

Mosley, a native of Los Angeles who now writes about the city from his home in New York City, has turned a remarkable feat over the course of his nine Easy Rawlins books. In living the life of his narrator, Mosley gave L.A. a history. The city with no connections, with no story, a place that so often is more flash than substance, is given body and soul through its material witness to the crimes and misdemeanors that reflect its own dark nature.

It’s an interesting experience to go through the novels again in order and their timeline is one aspect that lends them a certain veracity. Easy’s story begins in the 1940’s, as Los Angeles braces itself for the massive post-war boom for which it wasn’t necessarily ready. Devil in A Blue Dress made Mosley, nominated for an Edgar and cited by no less than Bill Clinton as a favorite novel.

There are good reasons why Easy captures the popular imagination, though. One is Mosley’s solid writing and complete familiarity with his character. Easy’s earthy, intelligent and unsophisticated voice never changes through the series -- even when each book jumps years at a time and the amateur detective is forced to deal with different situations and conflicts in each book.

His second, A Red Death, finds Easy infiltrating a black church in 1953 to spy on an alleged communist organizer. White Butterfly treads more familiar ground as Easy stalks a killer and learns more about corrupt cops in 1956. The 1960’s novels Black Betty, A Little Yellow Dog and Bad Boy Brawly Brown also do their part to detail the city and its struggle with civil rights as well as Easy’s own challenges to love and protect his wife and adopted children.

Mouse turns up here and there in almost every book, but in Bad Boy Brawly Brown the little smiling murderer has apparently been killed himself. For some reason, his absence has made Easy’s stories even better. Mosley has called Mouse’s absence the “negative space” in the book, in which Easy tangles with the black revolutionary movement that emerged in the mid-sixties. Mouse figures even more prominently in two interesting divergences, the first being a prequel of sorts, Gone Fishin’.

Given specifically by the author to a small independent publishing company, Black Classic Press, Gone Fishin’ tells the story of the pair’s deadly road trip in a stolen ’36 Ford down to Pariah, Texas. It was the first Easy Rawlins book written and it’s a stark precursor to the mature Easy that emerges particularly in later books. Six Easy Pieces is interesting in that it’s made up of seven new Easy Rawlins short stories and serves as a sort of primer for the character, drawing in Easy’s search for proof of Mouse’s violent death as well as other critical characters including his lover Bonnie Shay, his old flame EttaMae Harris, and low-level crooks like Jackson Blue.

His latest novel Little Scarlet is also best entry in the series, bringing us up to 1965 and a critical point in the life of Easy and his city as the devastating riots in Watts threaten to tear Los Angeles apart. Easy’s trying -- trying not to get involved, trying not to let the violence touch him and trying to work out his own subtle anger.

It had been like that for the past five days: me holding myself in check while South Los Angeles went up in the flames of a race riot; while stores were looted and snipers fired and while men, women and children cried “Burn, baby, burn!” and “Get whitey!” on every corner familiar to me.

I stayed shut up in my home, in peaceful West L.A., not drinking and not going out with a trunk full of Molotov cocktails.

That brutal little slice is just a sample of Mosley’s relentless and unforgiving talent for the mechanics of crime writing. Moreover, like some of his more remote contemporaries such as Rankin and Vachss, he’s using the crime novel to talk about society and its problems. It’s not only race, although Mosley spends a lot of time thinking about the black and white divide from which this country suffers. It’s about being a man, being an American, or trying to do the right thing in a city of brightest light and darkest shadows.

Luckily, if you find you like Easy Rawlins, there’s more out there from Mosley, too. The only other character that rivals Mouse for sheer dramatic power is Socrates Fortlow, convict, murderer, the man with the “rock-breaking hands” that lives in the short stories of "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned" and "Walkin’ The Dog." Like Easy, Socrates is the Everyman who is trying to be a better man but is saddled with far more baggage, damage and guilt than even Easy could carry. Another crime series (Fearless Jones and Fear Itself) chronicles the adventures of Paris Minton, a quiet, cowardly and literate bookseller who wants little more than to be left alone, and his harder but fair friend Fearless.

There are also other diversions, such as the blues epic of RL’s Dream, where musician Soupspoon Wise spins out his life story on his deathbed. There are nonfiction essays about race and politics in What Next: An African American Initiative Toward World Peace and Workin’ On The Chain Gang: Shaking Off The Dead Hand Of History, which land the author firmly in the unfamiliar territory of revolutionary pamphleteers.

Mosley also has a strong fondness for science fiction and while his speculative work in Futureland and Blue Light don’t hold up to a comparison with the Easy Rawlins novels, they’re interesting work, infected with many of the same ideas that inhabit Mosley’s worlds yet distinctly different from the genre they inhabit.

More recently, there was The Man In My Basement, a seriously dark turn in which he postulated what it would be like to have a white man chained up in the basement to which he could pose questions. This month also sees the publication of 47, a new experiment in young adult fiction that also ties in with Mosley’s science fiction interests. While he has always written detailed, history-rich novels, 47 reaches even further back to tell the story of a young slave on a 19th-century Georgia plantation. Where The Man In My Basement is a dark, unrelenting and ultimately disturbing story, 47 turns the page to draw a young man who rises above his struggles to emerge victorious.

It might be Chandler’s city but this is Easy’s world, full of death, drugs, violence and mayhem that belie the chrome and glass vision of the future that Los Angeles embodies. Mosley is a American classic, every bit as important as his contemporaries in the noir world and carried even further by a cutting intellect and an incredible compassion for a community whose history he carries with him. For all the deceptions and crimes that inhabit his books, they’re about finding a deeper truth, one that lies far under all that black or white skin, down deep in the bones and the blood.