Hard-Boiled

By Werbe, Peter | The Progressive, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Hard-Boiled


Werbe, Peter, The Progressive


A Profile of Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley strides in through the door of WRIF's studio in Detroit dressed all in black--pants, shirt, and wide-brimmed hat. Combined with a new mustache and goatee, he looks as much like a tenor player in a very hip jazz combo as an acclaimed mystery writer. Mosley is best known for his novel Devil in a Blue Dress (W.W. Norton, 1990), a dark tale of race, murder, and corruption set in late 1940s Los Angeles, which was turned into a 1995 movie starring Denzel Washington.

Mosley settles in and speaks animatedly about his work. "I write because I love telling stories," he says. "But every time I write something, it gets put into a ghetto when they say, `Well, he's a black mystery writer.'"

He is much more than that. His works echo the concerns of Albert Camus, Franz Fanon, and Ralph Ellison. For whites, his books can function simply as bang-up stories that incidentally have a black man as a central feature. For blacks, however, they cut closer to home, as Mosley imbues his characters with ethical dilemmas that are often life-defining.

The forty-seven-year-old has written five best-selling novels featuring his amateur but gritty inner-city sleuth, Easy Rawlins. He has also had success with his recently introduced Socrates Fortlow series about a black street-corner philosopher. Mosley has published in eighteen countries, ventured outside the private dick genre with a play, an HBO presentation, a novel about the blues, and a science fiction story Blue Light (Little, Brown, 1998).

His latest work is a nonfiction effort entitled Workin' on the Chain Gang (Ballantine, 2000), which he describes as "a nonaligned attack on capitalism." In it, he urges people to "say the truth once a day." However, he adds, "You shouldn't be telling the truth all the time, because it will kill you."

Mosley doesn't shy away from politics. He's on the board of Trans-Africa and is a member of the executive board of the PEN American Center.

"I write about black issues and political things," he says. "Black history is American history. It's mass oppression for mass production, and black people have experienced that more than any other people."

Mosley is of mixed parentage with a white, Jewish mother, and a Southern-born, black father. He was raised in Los Angeles during the 1950s and 1960s in African American neighborhoods. There he learned the colorful and lyrical street talk of L.A.'S poor districts, which he conveys with an authenticity that belies his sophisticated manner.

"Every once in a while, you run into a black person who has been isolated from the way people talk in the inner city or the way people talk in the South, but it's very rare," he says.

Mosley's books are usually set in the ghettos of Los Angeles, and he sees Watts as a window on the larger world in which all of us address questions of race, sex, violence, and economics.

His main characters are working class and often dirt poor African Americans. Whites rarely appear except as villains, cops, hoods, or in small supporting roles. His texts often provide whites a peek into black working class culture they are not normally privy to.

Mosley completed his first literary effort, Gone Fishin, after he moved to Greenwich Village, where he worked as a computer programmer. The book featured Easy and his psychopathic but somehow lovable killer sidekick, Mouse, in a coming-of-age novel set in the South in 1939. Mosley laughs, remembering how publishers told him the novel was very good but not commercial.

"They told me, `White people don't read about black people, black women don't like black men, and black men don't read,' "he recalls. (Mosley finally published Gone Fishin' in 1996 with Black Classic Press, a small African American publisher.)

Undeterred by his early rejection, Mosley wrote Devil in a Blue Dress, his first book featuring Easy Rawlins in a mystery genre.

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