As Bill Clinton pointed out just before being elected president in 1992, the crime novels of Walter Mosley are first and foremost crackling good stories, full of mystery, suspense and prose like good soul food: hearty, stick-to-your-ribs sentences with a spicy aftertaste. Their nutrient value is fortified — particularly in the case of the books featuring the African American sleuths Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins and Fearless Jones, both set in Los Angeles in the 1950s — by layers of insight into race relations in a time when a black detective’s life was never in so much danger as when he stepped into a bar full of white people.
Then there’s the case of another, rather different Mosley series character, Leonid McGill. Like Easy and Fearless, Leonid — so named by his communist father after Comrade Brezhnev — is black. Unlike them, he lives in New York and, more important, in the present. While Easy and Fearless struggle with the racial politics of their time and place, Leonid, an ex-criminal working as a private investigator, is relatively free of that burden. If he has any cross to bear, it has less to do with his race than with the fact that he’s short. (At a hair under 5-foot-6, Leonid is a bantamweight’s height, though with 180 pounds of muscle and a lifetime of boxing under his belt, he’s not the guy you want to back into a corner. The chip on his shoulder is all the heavier for being so close to the ground.)