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.)
“Leonid lives in the 21st century, and in the 21st century, things are different,” says Mosley, whose fourth McGill novel, “All I Did Was Shoot My Man” (Riverhead Books, $26.95), is due out Tuesday; Mosley will be doing a reading and book-signing at 7 p.m. that day at Politics & Prose. “In the 20th century, if I’m in Detroit and a young black man comes up to me and says, ‘It’s tough on a black man,’ I would say, ‘I know what you’re talking about.’ So would Easy and Fearless. But if a young black man in Detroit says that to me now, I’d say, ‘I’m sure there’s somebody in Kandahar who’d do an apartment swap with you.’ It’s a new world. There’s an awareness of race now, but there’s not the overpowering dominance of race that you had in the 20th century.”
Leonid, then, is Mosley’s first “post-black” hero, a black man whose race is far down the list of things that define him.
“There are still times he walks into a room that defines him by his race, but his world is much more complex, in some ways, than Easy’s or Fearless’s,” he says. “Easy and Fearless, they know what everybody in the room is thinking about them. They know how people are going to respond to them, and they know the kind of trouble they can get into. Leonid, he has to discover it. There’s a lot more freedom in his world, but also a lot more danger. When you know your enemy, staying out of trouble becomes a lot easier, because you always see it coming. Leonid never sees it coming.”
A lot of things are coming for Mosley, some of which he, like Leonid, can’t yet see clearly. “When I turned 59, I looked at that as the first day of my 60th year, so I’ve been 60 for the last 365 days, in my opinion,” he says in a telephone interview from his home in New York on his 60th birthday. “So I’ve been thinking all this year, I’m 60 — this is the time when I need to get some stuff done.”
Over the past year, those things have included a series of meetings with studio executives in L.A. — where he grew up in the Watts neighborhood — about a possible Leonid McGill series on HBO and a potential second series, featuring Easy Rawlins, for NBC. (An early Easy Rawlins book, “Devil in a Blue Dress,” was made into a popular film starring Denzel Washington in 1995.) As those projects percolate, Mosley is already at work on a new Easy Rawlins book.
First, though, he must launch “All I Did Was Shoot My Man,” in which Leonid continues an ongoing campaign of self-redemption by assisting Zella Grisham, a white woman he helped frame, years earlier, for a multi-million-dollar heist she didn’t commit. (She’d been headed for the penitentiary anyway, as Leonid had reasoned at the time, for apparently firing three bullets into her lover, whom she’d caught in bed with her best friend.) Leonid slowly realizes that there’s more to Zella’s story than he knew.
In the absence of a racial subtext for most of his encounters, Leonid takes life on the fly, with something like the improvisational elan of an old-school bebop sideman. Not that anything comes easy. He must dodge, for example, the unwelcome attentions of “my own personal Inspector Javert,” as he calls Carson “Kit” Kitteridge, a police captain who for years has been trying to hold him to account for past sins. He’s also forced to deal with the perennial convulsions of his fractious family, including his faithless Swedish wife, Katrina; his estranged mistress, Aura, who’s hankering to end the estrangement; his son Dmitri, who’s just moved in with “the Mata Hari of the Upper West Side,” his Belarusian ex-prostitute girlfriend Tatyana; his other son, Twill, who once followed his father’s footsteps in crime and is now, like his dad, going straight; and his daughter, Shelly, who’s been keeping what Leonid views as the wrong sort of company. Topping it all off are rumors that Leonid’s father, Tolstoy McGill — presumed dead for decades — has resurfaced in New York.
“In a fundamental sense, Walter’s Leonid McGill books are an exploration of family,” says his editor at Riverhead, Jake Morrissey. “He exists in this world where he’s present in lots of different families, if you will, including his own. He’s dealing with the scenario of having grown up with an absent father and wanting to give his children what he got, or didn’t get, from his own parents. And there’s the larger arc of his trying to find the sweet spot in his life, the place where family, his profession, his psychological and spiritual selves all seem to be in tune with each other, which obviously is a struggle. Walter handles that better, I think, than any other writer working today.”
What Mosley also does awfully well is write sentences that sing. “Tolstoy was the joker in the deck stacked against me,” he says of his father. Elsewhere, Kit’s sinister smile flares and vanishes “like a shark’s fin.” This eloquence is rendered natural, in the McGill novels, by the fact that Leonid is something of a philosopher and aesthete, capable of citing — as he does in “All I Did Was Shoot My Man” — Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lewis Carroll, Langston Hughes, Djuna Barnes, Amiri Baraka and the teachings of Buddha, among others.
And although he’s a man of the 21st century, Leonid is also something of a throwback to the hardboiled tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, a private eye who keeps office hours and approaches the well-heeled lair of a rich client with the skepticism and class resentment of Philip Marlowe arriving at the Sternwood mansion on the first page of “The Big Sleep.” “Maybe Leonid is a throwback in literature, but I’m not sure he is in the culture,” Mosley says. “I’m not sure he doesn’t exist, which is a good thing, because maybe we’re in need of that kind of hero today.”
We’re also in need, from Mosley’s perspective, of more people with Leonid’s politics — which are as progressive as those of the author, known for his left-wing political essays and membership on the board of the Nation. In part because of their historical and sociological content, his books are popular with politicians — not just Democrats such as Clinton but also conservatives such as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who once surprised Mosley by asking him to autograph an advance reader’s copy — known in the trade as an ARC — of one of the Easy Rawlins books.
“I was lobbying for the National Endowment for the Arts in D.C. and the senator had one of my ARCs,” Mosley recalls. “That was kind of shocking, because you would think that my politics and Mr. Hatch’s are on different sides of the universe. As it turns out, a wide range of politicians identify with Easy because he’s a solitary man, and his politics are expressed by how he lives his life, not who he votes for or what party he belongs to.”
Leonid’s politics manifest themselves primarily in his persistent suspicion of authority in all its forms, especially when it tries to foist itself on him. “I’ll have to ask you for your phone,” an officious executive tells him. “More than that,” he answers. “You’ll have to take it.” Later, a special investigator unwisely tries to strong-arm him with an attack on Zella as a “criminal” who “should be in prison.” It’s the wrong thing to say. “I knew corporate America had its own private police force,” Leonid shoots back, “but I didn’t realize that they now have commoditized the justice system too.”
There’s that chip again. Post-black or no, Leonid McGill lets it fall where it may.
Here’s the list of books from Walter Mosley’s prolific career.
The Easy Rawlins mysteries
“Blonde Faith” — 2007
“Cinnamon Kiss ” — 2005
“Little Scarlet” — 2004
“Six Easy Pieces” — 2003
“Bad Boy Brawly Brown” — 2002
“Gone Fishin’ ” — 1997
“A Little Yellow Dog” — 1996
“Black Betty” — 1994
“White Butterfly” — 1992
“A Red Death” — 1991
“Devil in a Blue Dress” — 1990
“All I Did Was Shoot My Man” — 2012
“When the Thrill Is Gone” — 2011
“The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” — 2010
“Known to Evil” — 2010
“The Long Fall” — 2009
“The Tempest Tales” — 2008
“Diablerie” — 2008
“The Right Mistake” — 2008
“Killing Johnny Fry” — 2007
“Fear of the Dark” — 2006
“Fortunate Son” — 2006
“The Wave” — 2006
“47” — 2005
“The Man in My Basement” — 2004
“Fear Itself” — 2003
“Futureland” — 2001
“Fearless Jones” — 2001
“Walkin’ the Dog” — 1999
Blue Light — 1998
“Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned” — 1998
“RL’s Dream” — 1995
“Twelve Steps Toward Political Revelation” — 2011
“This Year You Write Your Novel” — 2007
“Life Out of Context” — 2006
“What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace” — 2003
“Workin’ on the Chain Gang” — 2000
Nance is a freelance writer.
will be doing a reading and booksigning at 7 p.m., Tuesday at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-1919. www.politics-prose.com.