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Walter Mosley Biography

easy york novel detective

Nationality: American. Born: Los Angeles, California, 1952. Education: Attended Goddard College; received degree from Johnson State College; attended City College of the City University of New York, beginning 1985. Career: Formerly a computer programmer; writer. Lives in New York. Awards: Shamus Award (Private Eye Writers of America), 1990. Agent: c/o W. W. Norton, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10110, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Devil in a Blue Dress. New York, Norton, 1990.

A Red Death. New York, Norton, 1991.

White Butterfly. New York, Norton, 1992.

Black Betty. New York, Norton, 1994.

RL's Dream. New York, Norton, 1995.

Gone Fishin': An Easy Rawlins Novel. Black Classic Press, 1996.

A Little Yellow Dog: An Easy Rawlins Mystery. New York, Norton, 1996.

Blue Light: A Novel. Boston, Little, Brown, 1998.

Walkin' the Dog. Boston, Little Brown, 1999.

Short Stories

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned: The Socrates Fortlow Stories. New York, Norton, 1997.

Other

Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking off the Dead Hand of History. New York, Ballantine, 2000.

Contributor, Los Angeles in Fiction: A Collection of Essays, edited byDavid Fine. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Contributor, Mary Higgins Clark Presents The Plot Thickens.Thorndike, Maine, Center Point Publishers, 2000.

Introduction, The Stolen White Elephant and Other Detective Stories by Mark Twain. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Introduction and editor, with others, Black Genius: African American Solutions to African American Problems. New York, Norton, 1999.

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Film Adaptations:

Devil in the Blue Dress, 1995; Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, 1998.

Critical Studies:

Oil on the Waters: The Black Diaspora: Panel Discussions and Readings Exploring the African Diaspora through the Eyes of Its Artists (sound recording), Washington, D.C., Library of Congress, 1995.

* * *

Although Walter Mosley first gained attention as the author of a series of detective novels featuring an African-American private eye in the Raymond Chandler tradition, in light of subsequent works it is now apparent that he is more than simply a genre writer. For example, though Easy Rawlins, Mosley's private detective, was introduced to readers in 1991 with the publication of Devil in a Blue Dress, followed in quick succession by four more appearances, Rawlins's first appearance was in a non-mystery novel, Gone Fishin', written in 1988, though not published until 1997.

Gone Fishin' is a coming-of-age story centered around a trip made in 1939 by nineteen-year-old Easy Rawlins and his childhood friend Raymond Alexander (known as Mouse) from Houston to the Texas bayou town of Pariah. Childhood innocence gives way to painful lessons about mortality, friendship, and the heavy burden of guilt as Easy helplessly stands by and watches Mouse murder his stepfather, and then keeps quiet about it. At the end of the novel, Easy leaves Houston for a new life in Los Angeles, though his life there will continue to be complicated by the continuing presence of the recklessly dangerous Mouse.

Devil in a Blue Dress is set in 1948. Easy has just lost his job. When a white gangster offers him $100 to find a missing woman whom he believes is hiding somewhere in Watts, Easy, who needs the money to pay his mortgage, accepts the job. Trouble begins when friends of the missing woman begin turning up dead and Easy becomes a prime suspect in their murders. Easy, however, proves to be an effective detective, getting to the bottom of the mystery. He also discovers that being his own boss gives him a newfound confidence as a man—especially an African-American man in postwar America. In this and in subsequent novels in the series, Mosley also paints a colorful picture of Easy's world, taking his readers to places (e.g. neighborhood bars, local brothels, and community barbershops) heretofore largely absent from mainstream mystery fiction.

A Red Death picks up Easy's story five years later. Although he now owns three apartment buildings, Easy feels compelled to hide his ownership, posing instead as the maintenance man. But his ruse doesn't fool the IRS, who is after him for back taxes. When an FBI agent offers to fix his tax problems in return for whatever information he can uncover about a suspected Communist organizer working in a local black church, Easy once again finds himself in the role of detective.

As the series continues, life continues to grow more complicated for Easy. In White Butterfly, set in 1956, Easy, now married and the father of two (one of them a mute Mexican boy he saved from a life of child prostitution), still straddles the line between middle-class respectability (he now owns seven buildings, a secret he keeps even from his wife) and outlaw (he's jailed on suspicion of trying to extort money from his employer). Once again, though, he demonstrates his mettle as a detective, solving the case of the murder of a young white woman living in Watts. But his detective work takes its toll on his personal life, as his wife leaves, taking their daughter with her.

It's 1961, Kennedy's in the White House, Martin Luther King, Jr. is beginning to organize marches, and hope for black people is on the rise in Black Betty. But Easy's personal problems continue to weigh him down. He has to try to prevent Mouse from killing whoever sent him to jail, plus untangle an impossibly complicated mystery. The strain shows, and Easy's gloomy mood makes this the darkest novel in the series. At the end, he vows never again to get involved with the problems of others.

A Little Yellow Dog picks up Easy's story two years later, when he seems to have kept his promise: he's happily employed as head custodian at Sojourner Truth Junior High School and trying to raise his two adopted kids. But a sexual encounter with one of the school's teachers changes all that: her brother and his twin turn up dead, followed shortly by her own murder. Easy is left with her dog and a case that leads to more death and more pain. At the end of the novel, as the country grieves over the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Easy is left to grieve over the shooting of his friend Mouse and to agonize over his own guilt in that affair.

In the detective tradition established by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the private eye is usually portrayed as a loner working outside the system of organized law enforcement. But a black private detective like Easy is doubly marginalized, both by his profession and by his race. Race complicates his life in that the demands of justice are often at odds with the demands of his community, and though he often finds himself working for the police, he is never fully accepted by them—and his efforts on their behalf threaten his standing in his community. Mosley succeeds in expanding the bounds of the mystery genre by creating an unusual detective hero who is shown struggling with himself and with racial and class prejudices to make his place in the largely white world.

Ultimately, Easy has as much in common with a character like John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom as he does with the private eyes he's usually compared with. Like Updike, Mosley chronicles his hero's personal development in the context of the changing times. Also like Updike, Mosley is as interested in the slice of American life he portrays as he is in his hero. Easy is no simple hero; he's a flawed man in a flawed world. Mosley's genius is in creating believable portraits both of that man and of his world.

Mosley created a second series character, a tough ex-con named Socrates Fortlow, featured in two collections of stories, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned and Walkin' the Dog. Socrates spent twenty-seven years in an Indiana penitentiary for double murder. Out of prison for eight years and now living in a tiny apartment in Watts, his needs are few and his aims simple: after a lifetime of doing evil, he now wants to be a good man. Like his Greek namesake, Socrates is a philosopher in the fundamental sense of questioning how to live with dignity and integrity, even though circumstances and his troubled past sometimes make that effort difficult.

Written in simple and straightforward prose, perfectly matched to the character of Socrates, the stories display Mosley's skill in portraying realistically the demanding world of a down-and-outer like Socrates. They also celebrate the basic humanity of this fascinating fifty-eight-year-old supermarket bag boy seeking to atone for the past by striving against all odds to live a principled life.

Mosley's other two novels are also departures from the mystery genre with which he had first been identified. RL's Dream is a meditation on the blues. It tells the story of Atwater Wise, a blues guitar player known as Soupspoon. Fifty years ago, he played with legendary blues man Robert ("RL") Johnson. Now dying of cancer in New York City, he strikes up an improbable friendship with an alcoholic white woman named Kiki. She rescues him from homelessness and helps him record his memories of the past. The best parts of the novel are Soupspoon's recollections of his early days in the Mississippi Delta juke joints where he learned to play the blues. By bringing to life those memories of a lifetime spent both living and singing the blues, Mosley celebrates the heartache and the poetry of the music of a people who, as he writes, "carried the whole world on their shoulders and when they sighed it came out blues."

An even more radical departure for Mosley is Blue Light, a science fiction novel that is his least successful book. Set in San Francisco in the 1960s, the novel is populated with otherworldly blue lights, graphic murders, and an evil presence known as Gray Man. Largely absent from this novel, however, is the one quality that has proven to be the hallmark of Mosley's best work: the realistic depiction of ordinary people struggling to live ordinary lives.

In his fictional portraits of a wide range of African Americans, Mosley chooses not to focus primarily on racism as a dominant theme. Rather than portraying black people in relation to whites, in other words as victims of racism, he is more interested in showing blacks simply living their lives, working hard, raising their children, trying to pay the bills. Out of such ordinary lives as these, Mosley has crafted some extraordinary American fiction.

David Geherin

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