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New crime fiction with a twist from noir master Walter Mosley
For the past several years, writer Walter Mosley has been exploring and experimenting. Widely known and widely praised for his best-selling Easy Rawlins series of crime novels, Mosley restlessly delved into speculative fiction with Blue Light (1998), wrote two books featuring his urban philosopher, Socrates Fortlow, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1998) and Walkin' the Dog (1999), and produced an edgy nonfiction critique of American capitalism called Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History (2000).
"In a funny kind of negative way, I'm representative of a new breed of crime writers and fiction writers - because I write so many different kinds of books," Mosley says during a call to his home in New York, where he has lived for nearly 20 years after growing up in Los Angeles.
During our conversation, I've been pressing Mosley on whether or not, as an African-American, he feels he's expanded the boundaries for black writers. He has been thoughtful and polite, but he obviously does not want to make large statements about his contribution. More to the point, he doesn't want to be neatly and narrowly categorized. So Mosley talks about the impact of Chester Himes and Donald Goins and notes that there are about 40 black mystery writers publishing in America today. "I kind of took on the job of doing the type of hardboiled fiction that originated with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald," he finally allows. "I may have been, if not the first one, maybe the most defined person to do that."
In his new novel, Fearless Jones, Mosley moves beyond the Easy Rawlins series and creates a new cast of characters in the same hardboiled genre - with a twist. "I consider Fearless Jones to be in the genre of comic noir," Mosley says. "Even though these terrible things happen, very often you end up laughing."
Mosley is right. You do laugh, and the reason you laugh is because you see events through the eyes of Paris Minton. Paris is a slight, intelligent, inveterate reader who opens a used bookstore in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the 1950s. When Elana Love walks through his door, very bad things start happening to Paris Minton. How Paris responds to these events is quite different from how Easy Rawlins would respond.
"Paris is at once more practical and more cowardly than Easy," Mosley says. "In most hardboiled and noir fiction, the voice of the narrator is a very tough voice. I wanted to do something different. I wanted there to be the same tough, hardboiled character, but he's not the one telling the story. So Fearless Jones is the guy who does the rough stuff, and Paris is the guy who hides from it."
After Paris has been beaten up and robbed and his bookstore has been torched, he finally agrees to bail his friend Fearless Jones out of jail, having refused to do so before. "Friends are people who overlook your flaws and whose flaws you overlook," Mosley says. "Paris tells Fearless he's getting him out of jail just to save his ass, and Fearless says, 'I understand that. You're not perfect and neither am I.' I think that's a very satisfying moment, and it's a kind of moment that's often lacking in America."
Mosley has a reputation for weaving this sort of social and political commentary into the background of his novels. "I've always been pretty political," he says. "But I don't think there's any book that I've written - except possibly my book of nonfiction - to convince somebody else of my point of view. Very often I say 'this is the way things happen.' So if I talk about a black man named Paris Minton who lives in California in 1954 and has the entrepreneurial wherewithal to start himself a little business out of nothing, I'm going to have to mention that this doesn't necessarily go down easy with the guardians of the community. When Paris is rousted by the police it's just natural. He's not particularly angry. He's actually smart enough to have gone off and gotten a letter of explanation, because he knows what they are going to blame him for. If I didn't write about this, I wouldn't be writing really about our time."
Mosley, who didn't start writing until he was in his 30s, is also known for the economy and expressiveness of the language he uses. "When I decided to become a writer," he says, "I went to the writing program at City College. The one class I took every semester while I was there was a poetry workshop with a poet named Bill Matthews. I'm not a good poet, believe me - and that's stating it mildly. But studying poetry taught me the major things I needed to know about fiction. I already had a narrative voice, and I already loved characters and character development. But the other stuff I had to think about was condensation, the music in language, how simile works, how metaphor works, how to make a sentence say one thing and mean two other things also."
Discovering the other things his sentences and books are about is the challenge he always faces, Mosley says. "A mystery that is just a mystery will work. I read books like that all the time: a man gets killed and the whole book is finding out who that man is and how he got killed. That's OK, but for me it's not good enough to have written a book like that. There have to be other things going on.
"Fearless Jones is a mystery but it's also about black entrepreneurs in Los Angeles in the 1950s," Mosley adds. "That's a class of people who are almost never talked about or thought about or wondered about. But this story is full of them. . . . I also talk about a lot of other things, about people falling in love and how different people approach falling in love. I talk about friendship. And I talk about what intelligence is and the different kinds of intelligence that exist. Paris and Fearless really need each other. And part of that has to do with intelligence. Fearless is one of those old kind of heroes like Achilles, and Paris is more like Ulysses. One has a smart heart and the other a smart head. If it weren't for their friendship, Fearless would still be in jail and Paris would be dead," says Mosley, who plans to feature the characters in an ongoing series.
Mosley thinks of novels as documents of the history of the time and believes that people are more likely to read a novel for an understanding of a historical period than a history book. So he strives for a kind of fundamental accuracy.
"But the real job of the novel is character and character development," he says. "I try my best to bring my characters off the page." In Fearless Jones Mosley does exactly that.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.