Walter Mosley (1952 — ) is the creator of the most famous contemporary black private investigator, Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins. His territory is Watts, Compton, and East Los Angeles – the land of the drive-by shooting. Successor to both Chester Himes and Raymond Chandler, Mosley, like James Ellroy, sets his novels in the 1940s and 1950s.
Born in Los Angeles, Mosley migrated East. He graduated from Johnson State College and attended C.C.N.Y. in the 1980s. He was working as a computer programmer in New York City when he wrote down a bit of dialog he imagined on a Louisiana back-porch: “First there is a sentence,” he has said: “Then characters start coming in.” 1
Mosley’s first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) pays oblique tribute to Himes, for Rawlins is first depicted as a World War II veteran who finds work in the aircraft industry – just the work that eluded the earlier writer and frustrated his protagonist in If He Hollars Let Him Go (1945). Worried about paying his mortgage, Easy takes $100 to find a blonde who visits nightclubs on the black side of town. The job grows complex, and Easy has to rein in his violent sidekick Mouse; in the revealed plot, white politicians and gangsters turn out to have manipulated the woman. In the sequel, set five years later, Easy owns several apartment buildings he bought with stolen money (A Red Death, 1991). Pursued by the I.R.S., he must cooperate with the F.B.I. in spying on a Communist union organizer. Again extortion and murder turn out to have underworld roots. The third Easy Rawlins novel, White Butterfly (1994), is set in 1956. Easy is hired to help police investigate the murders of four young women, the last of whom, daughter of a city official and a U.C.L.A. student, was leading a double existence as a stripper. Like Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, the world of White Butterfly is a masque behind which roiling sexuality determines fates. In keeping with 1990s marketing practices, Mosley’s first four titles are color-coded. He has been successful, however, in bringing to the contemporary hard-boiled novel dialogue that it has not heard since Chester Himes. Like Robert Parker, he infuses his work with musical allusions, but Mosley’s are to the blues. His first non-genre book, R. L.’s Dream (1996) was a meditation on the life of blues master Robert L. Johnson. Mosley has said he plans to write nine books in the Easy Rawlins series, bringing his hero into the 1980s. His “insightful scenes of black life,” wrote Digby Diehl in the Los Angeles Times, “provide a sort of social history that doesn’t exist in other detective fiction.” 2 Here he clearly parts ways with Himes, whose treatment of Harlem usually consisted of caricature or grotesques.
More recently, Mosely’s writing has become extremely diverse. He has continued his detective titles: Gone Fishin’ (1997), Bad Boy Brawley Brown (2002), Six Easy Pieces (2003), Little Scarlet (2004) and Cinnamon Kiss (2005). He also started a “Fearless Jones” mystery series: Fearless Jones (2001), Fear Itself (2003), and Fear of the Dark (2006). And he started a “Socrates Fortlow” series: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1997),and Walkin’ the Dog (1999). While this kind of “product diversification” is increasingly typical of the genre, Mosely has taken it farther than almost anyone else. He has also ventured into science fiction, young adult fiction, erotica (Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel, 2006) and non-fiction, in which he has written five titles since 2000. Most of the latter are semi-self-help, the best being Workin’ on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History (2000)
1 Walter Mosley, quoted by D. J. R. Bruckner, in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 57, 374. Original in New York Times, August 15, 1990, n.p. 2 Digby Diehl, in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 57, 375. Original in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 5, 1994, n.p., n.d. Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 5, 1994, n.p., n.d.