Author Walter Mosley speaks in fevered, conspiratorial tones like a guy who's just robbed a bank and wants you, and only you, to know where...
Author Walter Mosley speaks in fevered, conspiratorial tones like a guy who’s just robbed a bank and wants you, and only you, to know where he hid the money.
It’s hard to catch him not wearing one of his signature Panama hats, which give him the look of someone who’s either just back from some exotic destination, or fleeing to one.
On a blustery, drizzly afternoon last week, he arrived for an interview at the Seattle Public Library in a straw-colored hat, a billowing, black Cuban-style shirt and teeny, orange-rimmed glasses that hung low on the bridge of his nose.
He’s like a character from one of his acclaimed mystery novels, which use the vehicle of crime thriller to explore the pitfalls and occasional glories of the African-American experience in the mid-20th century, when many blacks migrated from the Jim Crow South to California in search of a fresh start.
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Mosley, who was raised in the mid-20th century Los Angeles of many of his characters, could easily be a sidekick to his most famous protagonist, the hard-luck, complicated yet alluring private detective Easy Rawlins. Easy first appeared in 1990’s “Devil in a Blue Dress” (W.W. Norton), which in 1995 was turned into a film starring Denzel Washington.
Easy’s still working his quiet, noirish charms on South Central Los Angeles, as well as the ladies — fictional and real — in Mosley’s novels.
The latest Easy Rawlins mystery, “Cinnamon Kiss” (Little, Brown, $24.95), takes him from the aftermath of the Watts Riots in the previous installment, “Little Scarlet,” to the Bay Area during the Summer of Love. Sure enough, Easy starts to grapple with his own deepening idea of love.
When reminded about Easy’s appeal to women readers in particular, the 53-year-old author leaned back a little, smiled and nodded with pride and pleasure, as if he were the one women adored.
“It’s nice,” he said, with pretend modesty.
Mosley has every reason to feel proud. Seattle Times book reviewer Adam Woog called Mosley’s large body of work (some 20 fiction and nonfiction titles) “an impressionistic portrait of race relations in America” with “consistently rewarding” stories tracking Easy’s progression from World War II veteran to reluctant L.A. private eye to decent family man. Bill Clinton is also a big fan.
Mosley seems genuinely touched to know that readers find Easy, Easy’s volatile sidekick Mouse, and characters with names like Socrates Fortlow and Jackson Blue believable.
“What I say to myself is, ‘I really love these characters and I want to make them as real in the world as I can,’ ” Mosley said. If readers get angry with his characters as they work their way through a world of tough choices, dirty dealings and rampant injustice, so be it.
“When you care about somebody enough to get mad, to say, “You let me down,’ I think that’s wonderful,” he said.
Writing you can sink your teeth into
If prose can be described as succulent, then Mosley’s novels are ripe peaches, nearly bursting with mid-century California atmosphere, dead-on street banter and juicy descriptions of L.A. nightlife and personalities.
When Mouse introduces Easy to a sexy woman named Georgette in “Cinnamon Kiss,” Easy describes her like this: “Georgette gave off the most amazing odor. It was like the smell of a whole acre of tomato plants — earthy and pungent. I took the hand and raised it to my lips so that I could get my nose up next to her skin.”
When Mosley finishes a section of writing, he’ll read it aloud into a tape recorder, then play it back to make sure that the language rings true not just in his writerly mind but in his ears.
The gift for black dialogue Mosley has mastered is so rich in spots it cannot be printed in this newspaper, but the author wants readers who’ve experienced that world firsthand to know right away that Mosley’s novels will take them back there. His writing also needs to be accessible to those experiencing working-class black life for the first time through his stories.
“What I want to do is give people who’ve been there a chance to recreate that world and those who’ve haven’t been there a chance to create it,” Mosley said. “For a lot of people, it’s an alien land, the world of black Los Angeles.”
At the same time, Mosley struggles to avoid turning his colorful characters into one-dimensional cartoons. One of his recurring characters, Jackson Blue, is a case in point. “If there’s anybody who’s ‘street’ in the world, it’s Jackson Blue,” Mosley said. “But Jackson, he’s reading Cicero.”
Mosley’s creations may be street savvy but they’re also deep thinkers, people who don’t mind dropping a little ancient philosophy into their jive-talking conversations.
The black male characters, especially, receive Mosley’s full attention as a writer.
He describes them as heroes, in their own special way.
“I’m talking about black male heroes,” Mosley clarifies. “I’m not the only one doing this but there’s not a big genre of black male heroes, who aren’t caricatures.”
Mosley said he wants his readers to come away from his novels not just entertained by Easy or Mouse or Fearless Jones, a “hero” in Mosley’s other mystery series, but thinking to themselves, “I want to know that man.”
Pick a genre, any genre
Mosley, who now lives in New York, said his ambitions in this regard extend beyond the Easy Rawlins series. He’s just finished a novel titled “Killing Johnny Fry.”
“It’s a black erotic novel — 25 percent of it is explicit sex,” Mosley explained. The book follows a black man, a “lost soul” in Mosley’s words, who experiences the world primarily through intercourse but is forced to think better of his ways.
The author also has finished another of “my wild science-fiction books”; a coffee-table book inspired by the Fantastic Four comic book; a new Fearless Jones mystery; and the novel “Fortunate Son,” “a parable about luck,” he said. As if these were not enough, Mosley, an outspoken commentator, has finished his essay “Life Out of Context,” which encourages blacks to withdraw their support from a Democratic Party he believes is more concerned about money than the concerns of groups that make up its base.
“I’m completely happy being a writer,” the former computer programmer said. “It’s not only what I do — I don’t want to do anything else.”
Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or firstname.lastname@example.org