It's Black, White-And Noir: Crime Writers Are Taking a Hard-Boiled Look at Race
Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek
Byline: Malcolm Jones
In his forthcoming novel, "Bad Boy Brawly Brown," Walter Mosley sends his hero Easy Rawlins in search of a young African-American man who's joined up with the Urban Revolutionary Party in mid-'60s Los Angeles. But just when Easy finds the young man at a party meeting, the cops barge in. "A police raid meant nothing to me," Easy says. "I'd been in whorehouses, speakeasies, barber shops and alley crap games when the police came down. Sometimes I got away and sometimes I lied about my name. There was nothing spectacular about being rousted for being black."
It takes only a few pages for Mosley to capture the anger and violence of the '60s, and he does it from the point of view of an African-American man who wants no part of radicalism and even less to do with the white power structure that throws the police at the slightest sign of unrest. The remarkable thing about this scene, though, is that it takes place not in some ambitious social novel about racial violence but in a detective story. And these days that sort of social realism is not that uncommon.
Novels with a social conscience, or novels that picked at the warp and woof of the way people lived, were once a high-protein staple of the American literary diet--think Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck or John Dos Passos. But then social realism fell from favor in literary circles. Remember Philip Roth's famous quote in the early '60s that fic-tion could no longer keep pace with reality? These days, with a few exceptions--Richard Price, Colson Whitehead--mystery writers have social realism almost all to themselves. Or as crime writer Dennis Lehane puts it succinctly, "Today's social novel is the crime novel." Lehane backs that claim up with a half-dozen mysteries ("Prayers for Rain," "Mystic River") about life high and low in Boston, and so can writers like Mosley, James Lee Burke, George P. Pelecanos, James Sallis and Paula L. Woods.
Today's crime writers, black and white alike, are tackling the volatile subject of race with a daring conspicuously lacking in mainstream fiction. Because race is almost never the main event in their stories, these writers don't look at racial issues as problems to resolve. They look at them as clues about how society works, or doesn't work. The result is often some of the freshest reporting being done on America. Even law professor Stephen Carter, who got mixed reviews for his eagerly anticipated debut novel, "The Emperor of Ocean Park," drew praise for his portrait of upper-middle-class African-American society--in the middle of a mystery novel.
Mosley kick-started the trend in 1990 with "Devil in a Blue Dress," the first of six Easy Rawlins mysteries in which he's charted the history of black life in Los Angeles from the '40s to the '60s. …