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In 1992, when President Bill Clinton was asked who his favorite mystery writer was, he replied, ”Walter Mosley.” Although Mosley had already won critical acclaim, the president’s endorsement brought him to the attention of a larger public. His next book, Black Betty (1994), the third in his Easy Rawlins series, sold one hundred thousand copies in hardback. His Easy Rawlins books, as well as his novels featuring Fearless Jones, are set in the African American community of Los Angeles, from the post-World War ii years into the turbulent 1960s. More than just a genre writer, Mosley, in his Easy Rawlins books, presents a social history of the black experience in America at a crucial period in the struggle for civil rights.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Legacy of Oppression
Born on January 12, 1952, in Watts, a poor inner-city section of South Central Los Angeles, Mosley was the only son of a custodian, LeRoy Mosley, whom the writer has frequently named as the most important influence in his childhood. His father became the partial model for Mosley’s best-known fictional detective, Easy Rawlins, as well as for Socrates Fortlow. Mosley’s mother, Ella, who worked for the Los Angeles Department of Education, was Jewish, and growing up, Mosley experienced cross-cultural influences that became the focus of his life and novels. He is acutely conscious of the traditions and the history of the oppressed peoples that were his legacy.
Mosley’s family left Watts, the locus of notorious race riots in 1965, for West Los Angeles when he was twelve. His parents were able to buy two duplexes and began renting out three of the four apartments—an important event for Mosley’s later novels as Easy Rawlins similarly becomes a property owner. Meanwhile, Mosley enrolled at Louis Pasteur Junior High School and then Hamilton High School, from which he graduated in 1970. in the early 1970s, Mosley grew long hair and traveled to Northern California and then to Europe.
A Technical and Creative Education
A determined Mosley worked his way to a higher education, going to school in Vermont, first at Goddard College and then at Johnson State College, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science. Seeing the future importance of computers in American life, he trained as a computer programmer. in 1981 he moved to New York City, where he met the dancer and choreographer Joy Kellman, whom he married in 1987 (they divorced in 2001). His interest in technology forecast the books he has written in the science-fiction genre, Blue Light (1998) and Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World (2001).
Although his technical training led to a position with Mobil Oil, Mosley found his work as a programmer tedious. He pursued means of self-expression, including painting and pottery. Inspired by having read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), he tried writing. In a December 1995 interview for Ebony, he recalls being excited by a sentence he wrote one Saturday at work—”On hot sticky days in southern Louisiana the fire ants swarmed.” He says he ”stumbled onto writing somewhere around 33 or 34 and I went, ‘Oh, this is interesting. This is kind of fun.”’ At first he studied poetry because he ”believed that you really can’t write fiction unless you know poetry in some way or another …. you have to understand the music of poetry to write good fiction.” In 1985 he began to take night classes in the graduate writing program of the City University of New York.
For a while, Mosley was unable to find a publisher for his first novel, Gone Fishin’ (1987), about a young Easy Rawlins coming of age in the borderland between Texas and Louisiana. Mosley credits the success of Terry McMillan’s best-selling books Disappearing Acts (1990) and Waiting to Exhale (1992) with changing the perceptions of publishers. When Devil in a Blue Dress was published in 1990, critics compared Mosley’s writing to the work of Raymond Chandler, whose cynical portrait of Los Angeles set the tone for hard-boiled urban detective fiction, and to the hardened voice and style of Chester Himes, the African American detective writer.
Devil in a Blue Dress introduces Ezekiel ”Easy” Rawlins, an unemployed black veteran returned from World War II who finds America just as racist as it was when he left to fight for it. Determined not to be ground down by the social, political, and economic system that crushes so many black men before they have a chance to succeed, Easy has a canny business sense and a willingness to do what he has to do to survive. At first, his only refuge from his brutal world is his house, and he understands the importance of the property to his sense of identity. Devil in a Blue Dress is representative of Mosley s writing in that he portrays both white and black worlds, neither in a particularly flattering way.
Mosley went on to write several more Easy Rawlins novels, including A Little Yellow Dog (1996). Set in 1963, the novel shows Easy trying to lead a reformed life. At the heart of A Little Yellow Dog as well as in most of Mosley’s other work, lies Los Angeles—colorful, varied, culturally rich, and full of contradictions and untold stories.
Mosley published his next book, Gone Fishin’ (1997)— the first Easy Rawlins novel he wrote, which had been rejected by publishers in the late 1980s—with a small black publishing house, Black Classic Press in Baltimore. A stew of sex, voodoo, and death, the novel takes Easy back to his early manhood in Houston in 1939, when he accompanies his best friend, Mouse, on a journey to the Louisiana bayou town of Pariah to get money from his stepfather. Later in 1997, Mosley published Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, a book set in contemporary Los Angeles featuring Socrates Fortlow, a former convict who spent twenty-seven years in an Indiana penitentiary for rape and murder. Eight years out of prison and living in a shack in Watts, the nearly sixty-year-old Socrates strives to over-come the angry legacy of hatred from his prison days. Fortlow is based in part on Mosley s childhood growing up in the often tumultuous neighborhood.
In 2003 Mosley brought out two mystery books—the eighth book in the Easy Rawlins series, Six Easy Pieces, and the novel Fear Itself—as well as his response to the events of September 11, 2001, and the war on terror, What Next? A Memoir Toward World Peace. In 2004 Mosley published two works, the non-genre novel The Man in My Basement, and his ninth book about Easy Rawlins, Little Scarlet.
At fifty-two, Walter Mosley is respected as a writer beyond genre. He was named the first Artist-in-Residence at the Africana Studies Institute of New York University, where he directs a lecture series titled ”Black Genius.” He is a director on the board of the National Book Awards, the Poetry Society of America, a member of the executive board of PEN American Center (and founder of its Open Book Committee), and a past president of the Mystery Writers of America.
Works in Literary Context
Use of Color
One notable aspect of Mosley’s novels, particularly his Easy Rawlins series, is his treatment of color. Blue, red, white, black, yellow, and brown are used in the titles of the first six novels of the series. In the collection Six Easy Pieces, the title of each story includes a color word: “Smoke,” ”Crimson Stain,” ”Silver Lining,” “Lavender,” ”Gator Green,” ”Gray-Eyed Death,” and ”Amber Gate.” Mosley often interweaves various images of color. His characters are not simply ”black”; they are ”coffee-colored,” ”pale brown,” ”ebony,” ”chocolate,” and dozens of other colors. Mosley has said that his purpose is twofold: to counter the white stereotype that blacks all look alike, and also to stress the variety of humanity.
At the beginning of Black Betty, set in 1961, Easy awakes from a disturbing dream and
tried to think of better things. About our new young Irish president and Martin Luther King; about how the world was changing and a black man in America had the chance to be a man for the first time in hundreds of years.
Mosley often gives readers a recognizable moment in American history viewed through the eyes of a single black man. This perspective, rare in crime fiction, vivifies not only the black experience, but the larger event as well. Thus, the hot winds that would eventually ignite the Watts riots are seen, not as abstract issues in race relations, but as emotions in the hearts of individuals we have come to know and care about. In Easy’s bitterness and in the bone-weary fatigue with which he greets each new act of senseless violence, the reader feels the ineffable sadness that has come to envelop this urban landscape.
Money and Property
Many of Mosley’s works depict the economic realities of being black during the 1950s and 1960s. In A Red Death (1991), Easy has invested the money he ended up with in Devil in a Blue Dress in property but is so wary of drawing attention to himself that he pretends to be only the handyman and employs a shady businessman named Mofass to act as the landlord. As in the first novel, Easy’s financial situation—in this case his acquisition of the apartments with off-the-books money—makes him vulnerable. He is threatened by two conflicting elements of white oppression: a racist IRS agent looking for money and an even more dangerous FBI agent who wants to use Easy to frame suspected communist sympathizers—whether they are actually communists or not.
Works in Critical Context
Mosley has been praised for his evocative style and for staking out new territory for the hard-boiled detective genre. ”Mosley’s L.A.” writes David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, ”is …a sprawl of black neighborhoods largely hidden from the history books, a shadow community within the larger city, where a unique, street-smart justice prevails.”
Devil in a Blue Dress
As critic Marilyn C. Wesley notes in her 2001 essay ”Power and Knowledge in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress,” the writer’s real objective is not the resolution of the crime narrative or of the problems of society: ”In Devil in a Blue Dress and the other Easy Rawlins novels, Walter Mosley represents rather than resolves complicated historical issues of the multiracial society Easy uncomfortably inhabits.” A reviewer for The New York Times notes that Devil in a Blue Dress marks the debut of a talented author with something vital to say about the distance between the black and white worlds, and with a dramatic way to say it.”
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned was a great critical success. Writing in the The New York Times, Sven Birkerts praises the believability of the character of Socrates:
Mosley models Socrates from all sides, many unflattering, yet he manages to leave us with the impression of a man whose soul is tuned to the pain of others. Socrates acts decently, not because he hews to a code of right action, but because decency follows from this susceptibility.
Mosley’s style,” Birkerts asserts, suits his subject perfectly. The prose is sandpapery, the sentence rhythms often rough and jabbing. But then—sudden surprise—we come upon moments of undefended lyricism.”
- Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
- Berger, Roger A. ”’The Black Dick’: Race, Sexuality and Discourse in the LA. Novels of Walter Mosley.” African American Review 31 (Summer 1997): 281-295.
- Birkerts, Sven. Review of Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. The New York Times (November 9,1997).
- Bunyon, Scott. ”No Order from Chaos: The Absence of Chandler’s Extra Legal Space in the Detective Fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley.” Studies in the Novel 35 (2003).
- Jaggi, Maya. ”Socrates of the Streets.” Guardian (September 6, 2003): 7, 20.
- Lock, Helen. ”Invisible Detection: The Case of Walter Mosley,” MELUS 26 (2001).
- ”The Mystery of Walter Mosley.” Ebony (December 1995).
- Ulin, David L. The Los Angeles Times Book Review, (August 6, 1995).
- Wesley, Marilyn C. ”Power and Knowledge in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress.” African American Review 35 (2001).
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