Mean streets. Harsh city. Bad men with hearts of gold. Hard women with harder secrets. This is Walter Mosley's L.A., rent by racism and rank ambition -- where politics rules and there is far too little poetry.

Mosley is often called the most famous black male writer in America. The author of almost two dozen gritty crime novels, he is a sultan of shock. He is best known for his spectacularly successful Easy Rawlins novels, among them Bad Boy Brawly Brown and Little Scarlet. In every Mosley novel, real history lurks in the background: Little Scarlet takes place in the ashes of the Watts riots; the very comic Fearless Jones describes slick black entrepreneurs in the '50s; his recent Cinnamon Kiss is set during L.A.'s "Summer of Love."

His big break came in 1993, when President Bill Clinton was seen carrying a paperback copy of Mosley's first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, and declared him his favorite writer. Soon after that, Hollywood released the film version, starring Denzel Washington as Mosley's complex, existentialist hero and Don Cheadle as his delightful but twisted best friend. Since then, Mosley has been a veritable engine of production, publishing one, sometimes two books a year. Every other season, it seems, there is a new Easy novel, or a collection of Socrates Fortlow stories, or a treatise on race and our times.

It could be he is making up for lost time. Mosley was a 34-year-old computer programmer when he published his first novel. "People say being a writer is lonely! Nothing's as lonely as that." Every book, he says, has been an insurance policy against going back.

He grew up in Watts. His father, an African American, was a custodian for the L.A. Board of Education. His mother -- who is white and Jewish -- was a bureaucrat for the L.A. Unified School district. "My father had great stories. He was a natural born storyteller. And he'd had a hard, hard life." His mother's family offered a different history: "Uncle Chaim would say to my father, So your people were hung and burned and made to stay in ghettos? Big deal. So were we."

Some say that he has political ambitions, and no one who has ever seen Mosley before an audience would doubt it: His opinions are sharp, his words biting, he has legions of fans. And then there is that unmistakable glamour: black hat, black turtleneck, black trench coat and a penchant for working the room.

But the truth is that Mosley is happiest at home, at his desk, where, he admits, he sheds all those black clothes and writes al fresco. It's no mystery why, he's happy to tell you: He does it to shock The Muse.

-- Marie Arana