Walter Mosley Takes New York
Race. Crime. Age. Treachery. Politics. Family. Revenge.
Hell, if one of these things doesn’t get you -- especially if you’re the lead in a new mystery series by the brilliant and prolific novelist Walter Mosley -- you might have to just watch out for time. Something is going to get you, probably sooner than later.
Just ask Easy Rawlins, who we last saw fading to black at the end of Blonde Faith. But after nearly a dozen terrific novels in that series, you can’t blame the author for retiring his most famous creation. Besides, there’s a new sheriff in town.
Mosley has just released The Long Fall, a book that serves as both a distinct diversion from the Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones books and the launch of another morally complicated character, this one simultaneously a relic of days gone by and a man planted firmly in the modern world.
The new “hero,” if you will, is Leonid Trotter McGill, who first appeared in the 2005 short story, “Karma.” McGill is a true private eye, operating in New York, a city he knows by heart, and that knows him right back. He comes from a much stranger background, the child of a vehement communist revolutionary and a devoutly religious mother. He has a disaster of a wife, the aptly named Katrina, as well as a volatile relationship with Aura Antoinette Ullman, his landlord, with whom Leonid would much prefer to spend the rest of his life. Like Easy, Leonid also has a fistful of kids, one of his own and some, like his troubled son Twill, his family by fate.
Of course, Leonid has at least some of the characteristics of a noir-derived protagonist that one might expect. He drinks hard, hangs out in a dilapidated gym on 34th Street, and operates under his own unique code of ethics, which he explains in the book’s opening pages.
“In the years before, I had no problem bringing people down, even framing them with false evidence if that’s what the client paid for,” McGill says. “I didn’t mind sending innocent men, or women, to prison because I didn’t believe in innocence -- and virtue didn’t pay the bills. That was before my past caught up with me and died, spitting blood and curses on the rug.”
If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Mosley spent his life in Los Angeles, where Easy Rawlins called home since he was introduced in Devil In A Blue Dress nearly 20 years ago. But in fact, Mosley makes his home in New York City, where he was back several months ago when we talked about Leonid McGill, the city the author loves, and his excitement about launching the new series.
The first order of business was to put Easy to rest.
“Listen, there are 3,000 pages in the Easy Rawlins novels,” Mosley says. “You can actually start again at the beginning and I guarantee you’ll have forgotten every word. From the beginning, when people started asking me how many Easy Rawlins books I was going to write, I always said nine, and it ended up being eleven. I understood that after all of those books, written from Easy’s point of view, I had covered everything he was going to say and do. I also got to a period of time where things had changed. I needed to write about a different character, and a different world, really.”
Asked for a thumbnail sketch of Leonid McGill, Mosley responds with enthusiasm about the man whose path in life has evolved a lot from when the author first dreamed him up four years ago to the eve of the last election, when the first entry of the series was being completed.
“I love so many things about Leonid,” Mosley says. “He’s a real throwback to the noir period, to the days even before the first Easy Rawlins book. He’s a character of old in many ways. He had an extraordinarily religious mother and a father who was a dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary and organizer. All of that failed him and he grew up on the streets as a criminal. To arrive at this point in his life where he needs to change is the perfect place in the life of a character.”
In short, Leonid McGill has reached a crossroads where he has to reinvent himself.
“In some ways, Leonid needs to become someone else because he’s beyond redemption,” Mosley says. “Who and what he is cannot be changed by this point. The police are never going to see him differently and they’re not wrong. That’s something I always like about the old guys. The police always think one thing about them, but usually they’re wrong. In this case, they’re right. He was a bad guy, but he’s one who’s trying to make things better. He doesn’t think his going to prison is going to make a difference, so he tries to do better. And, of course, it’s a very difficult thing to change and not leave that place where you were. To give up being an alcoholic but stay on the bar stool is a difficult position to be in.”
For the first time, Mosley is writing about the present day, and it’s edge-of-your-seat writing, because instead of having to reconstruct a lost world, like the Los Angeles of the 1940s or '50s, the writer is producing a series that’s very much set in the here and now.
“A lot of people, when I told them that Blonde Faith was the last Easy Rawlins novel, asked if I was going to write a new series. Well, yes. They asked if it was going to be about race, and my answer was always that it’s going to be contemporary. They would ask if it was going to be about race in the same way that Easy Rawlins is about race. And I would answer, ‘Well, it’s contemporary.’ I mean that everything has changed. Leonid McGill is still a black man in the United States but the world is so different that there’s no way that he could, like Easy could, break things down into black and white. It just can’t happen.”
The book, which was completed before the presidential election, even touches on the rise of Barack Obama at the same time McGill reflects on his own conflicted past.
“I was talking about the Obama election before it was finished,” says Mosley, who attended the Democratic Convention in Denver. “I was also very excited to be able to use Leonid to talk about a period 17 years ago, when communism was falling, when Frank Capra died, when Americans were looking for a way to work their way through this new world. Politics and race and class are so infinitely more complex today. I find that this new character and his new life is a wonderful way to approach it.”
In addition to breathing life into a new character, Mosley is finding hidden pleasures in his own city, which he’s really writing about in depth for the first time.
“I’ve always wanted to write about New York because it’s such an extraordinary place,” Mosley says. “There are very few people who really write about New York. Los Angeles and San Francisco are a little easier to write about because no matter how big they get, they’ll always be one-horse towns. But with New York, all you have to do is ride the subways to tell the incredible breadth of the city. It’s a different point of view, looking at the city in a different way, which is really exciting for me.”
While Mosley has a real fondness for McGill and his troubles, he carries even greater affection for one of the book’s secondary characters. Twill, McGill’s delinquent son, is a born criminal and usually up to so much trouble that Leonid is forced to break into the kid’s e-mail to keep track of his activities.
“I love Twill, and I intend to work with him a lot in this series,” Mosley says. “He’s at a perfect age, 16 years old. He’s Leonid’s favorite child, even though they’re unrelated by blood, and he’s such a loveable kid. It’s different from Mouse, who was so sterile. Twill isn’t like that at all. He’s simply a character who makes a decision unfettered by common morality. And the decision makes sense. It’s wrong, so he shouldn’t murder a man. But it makes sense to him. The whole idea of trying to socialize this kid is an interesting process.”
And of course, as I said earlier, age and time are always against us. But Mosley is embracing the fifty-three year old private eye and finding plenty of common ground between them.
“Leonid is at a really interesting moment in time, being in his fifties,” Mosley says. “When you hit your fifties, you can no longer be this ideal of masculinity. The idea of being a man is that I’m John Henry, I got my sledgehammer in my hand, and I’m going to keep slamming at that wall until it breaks. But when you get in your fifties, there are twenty different things you have to do every day, and you can’t get away from any of them. There are three or four different fires that you have to put out, and any one of them can burn you up.”
There is, after all, a lot to occupy a common man in New York City, let alone one with the various tasks and turmoil inherent in a character like Leonid McGill.
“One of the things I like about writing Leonid is the complexity of his day,” Mosley says. “Sure, there’s a crime to solve but there are a lot of other problems he has to deal with, too. He has to deal with his girlfriend and figure out a way to keep his office. He has to deal with people he sent to prison a decade earlier. In a way, it reflects how when you get older, you have to deal with life in a completely different way, while at the same time you don’t have the energy you had when you were thirty. I think it’s not only writing about this time in my life, but also this time in America. The days in this country when you could identify yourself in only one way are gone.”
McGill, like his creator, is a complex man finding his way through a complex world. For now, we’ll leave Walter Mosley back in New York, dreaming up the next cross for Leonid to bear, and hoping readers come away from The Long Fall with a few new ideas in mind.
“Having the common, everyday person understand that the law doesn’t really work for us is tough,” Mosley says. “The best we can hope for is that we’re ignored by the big problems, and that someone doesn’t steal our identities, or make off with our life savings. That’s all we can hope for because if it happens, no one is going to help you.”