Fearless Mosley

Writer Walter Mosley returns to the mystery but keeps experimenting with forms.

"It's hard to write mysteries," author Walter Mosley notes, "because you have to worry about plot so much. In that way, it's much harder than any other arm of literature. But that's not why I stopped writing them. I stopped because I wanted to write different things -- and I came back because I had something new to say."

These comments neatly sum up Mosley's career so far. He first gained notice with the 1990 publication of Devil in a Blue Dress, which thrillingly turned the urban-detective tale on its ear. "Noir," a French word often used to describe such sagas, literally means "black," yet African-Americans have traditionally been consigned to the form's margins; in far too many cases, they serve only as the emblematic trappings through which a white hero must slog in his quest for a bright, shining truth in a murky land of lies. But Devil, which revolves around the exploits of black investigator Easy Rawlins and Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, Rawlins's hair-trigger pal, lingers in parts of Los Angeles that the vast majority of noir works either avoid or view solely from a Caucasian perspective, thus creating a fresh, culturally relevant context.

Following Devil, Mosley revisited Easy's world five more times via a quartet of rich, satisfying mysteries and Gone Fishin', a character study actually penned in the late '80s. He built a rabid fan base along the way, but beginning in the mid-'90s, he tested the loyalty of his aficionados by branching into other areas, offering up the self-described "blues novel" RL's Dream; two pieces centering on black philosopher Socrates Fortlow; a pair of nonfiction efforts; and 1998's Blue Light, a disastrous foray into sci-fi. Only a writer as talented and ambitious as Mosley could write so bad a book.

Walter Mosley strikes again.
Walter Mosley strikes again.

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It comes as a relief, then, that Fearless Jones, the latest from Mosley, is an enjoyable return both to Rawlins-era Los Angeles (there's even a reference to Mouse) and to the mystery style itself. Yet this effort is no Easy retread. Whereas Rawlins is, in Mosley's words, "pretty melancholy, and the ends of his stories are pretty sad," Fearless, despite its high body count, is almost lighthearted at times. Narrator Paris Minton spends much of the action in varying states of terror, while the title character is so brave and bold that he might as well have come from Krypton. Moreover, the story, populated by characters ranging from shady preachers to nasty Nazis, verges on satire. "Some of the things do seem way out," Mosley allows.

Nevertheless, Mosley still manages to blend in social commentary of the sort that gives the Rawlins series its heft and gravity. Minton, for instance, runs a used bookstore stocked entirely with items discarded by public libraries, but is regularly harassed for his entrepreneurial spirit by the white authorities, who later charge him with arson when his business burns to the ground. "What happens in Fearless Jones is beyond the reality of most people's lives, but it's set in a real world," Mosley says. "So there's actually an underpinning to it."

Mosley so enjoyed spending time with Paris and Fearless that he's already mapping out future adventures for them, but he's not content to limit himself to whodunits. Indeed, his next project, Futureland, due later this year, is a collection of science-fiction short stories. He knows this news won't thrill those addicted to his noir excursions, but he's not letting their disappointment stop him.

"Some people tell me I shouldn't write these other books," he says. "But I can't just write mysteries -- I can't. And I think the other writing I do makes my mysteries better."

 
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