Walter Mosley 1952-
American novelist, short story writer, editor, memoirist, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Mosley's career through 2004. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 97.
Mosley emerged during the 1990s as one of the foremost crime and detective fiction writers of his generation. His first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), achieved immediate popular success as well as critical acclaim. His private-eye hero Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins has appeared in seven novels that follow Easy's development from a teenager in south Texas during the 1930s to his uneasy success as a homeowner and family man in the African American community of post-World War II Los Angeles. Easy Rawlins has been favorably compared to the protagonists of the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and Mosley has been widely regarded as a rightful heir to African American crime writer Chester Himes. Mosley's literary reputation expanded in the early 1990s with the successful 1995 screen adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress and the acknowledgement by U.S. President Bill Clinton that Mosley was among his favorite authors.
Born in 1952 to a white Jewish mother and an African American father, Mosley was raised in South-Central Los Angeles, California. He graduated from high school in 1970 and enrolled in Goddard College in Vermont. He later earned a B.A. in political science from Johnson State College in 1977. Soon after graduating, Mosley moved to Boston, where he met and married Joy Kellman, a dancer and choreographer. Mosley moved to New York in 1982, where he worked as a computer programmer and began attending creative writing courses at the City College of New York. In 1989 he showed his manuscript of Devil in a Blue Dress to his writing teacher Frederic Tuten, who sent the novel to a literary agent. The agent soon arranged for the publication of Mosley's novel, and the commercial success of Devil in a Blue Dress allowed Mosley to support himself as a full-time writer. His three successive novels after Devil in a Blue Dress broadened Mosley's following and reputation, bringing him nominations for fiction awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the Private Eye Writers of America, and Britain's Crime Writers' Association. Developed for young urban residents, Mosley founded the City University of New York (CUNY) publishing degree program, the only such program in the country. Mosley has served on the board of directors of the National Book Awards, the Poetry Society of America, and TransAfrica as well as once serving as the president of the Mystery Writers of America.
Mosley is best known for his mystery series featuring private detective “Easy” Rawlins and his violent though loyal friend, Raymond Alexander, better known as “Mouse.” The first novel in the series, Devil in a Blue Dress, is set in Los Angeles in 1948. Rawlins, a veteran of World War II, loses his job at a factory and is hired to track down a white woman known to frequent jazz clubs. Taking the job purely out of financial necessity, Easy is soon drawn into the complex and morally ambiguous underworld of L.A.'s African American community. As he struggles to locate the mystery woman, Easy repeatedly calls on his friend Mouse—a reputed ex-convict with a ruthless temper—to serve as a confidant, sidekick, and enforcer. Set in 1953 against the backdrop of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy's communist witch-hunts, A Red Death (1991) finds Easy in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service for accepting $10,000 in untaxed payment for his detective services in Devil in a Blue Dress. Government agents coerce Easy into working for the FBI to spy on a union organizer suspected of being a communist. In White Butterfly (1992), set in the late 1950s, Easy has settled into a comfortable full-time job as a janitor at a public high school and is enjoying a quiet domestic life with his wife and a new baby. His relative newfound stability is disrupted when he is hired by the police to investigate the serial murders of several young women, one of whom is a white college coed who led a double life as an exotic dancer. Mouse is one of the key suspects in the police investigation, and Easy primarily becomes involved in an effort to aid his friend. The fourth novel, Black Betty (1994) takes place in the early 1960s and concerns Easy's search for a woman known as Black Betty, whom he knew during his youth back in Texas. Easy helps a woman to escape her abusive husband in A Little Yellow Dog (1996) and, as a result, ends up becoming the owner of a yellow dog named Pharaoh. The novel, set in 1963, concludes with two notable deaths—the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the apparent death of Mouse, who lapses into a coma after being shot. In the conclusion, Mouse's wife, Etta Mae, carries his body out of the hospital, and it remains ambiguous if Mouse truly has died. Gone Fishin' (1997), a prequel to the Rawlins series, takes readers back to 1939, when a nineteen-year-old Easy and Mouse left their childhood home in south Texas and became embroiled in a murder. Marking Mosley's return to the Easy Rawlins series after a five-year hiatus, Bad Boy Brawly Brown (2002), is set during the Civil Rights era, taking Easy on a tempestuous journey through the underworld of black political radicalism in his search for the missing son of a friend.
In addition to Easy Rawlins, Mosley has introduced several other engaging African American protagonists to his fictional repertoire. The 1995 novel R. L.'s Dream moves away from Mosley's traditional post-World War II mysteries, instead setting its narrative in New York City during the 1980s. The plot follows a down-on-his-luck blues musician, known as Atwater “Soupspoon” Wise, who is rescued from the streets by a white woman who takes him into her home. Soupspoon's dream is to one day play with his idol, the real-life legendary blues musician Robert “R. L.” Johnson. Mosley's short story cycle Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1998) features the character Socrates Fortlow, recently released from prison after serving a long sentence on charges of rape and double-homicide. Fortlow becomes a part of the African American community of Watts, Los Angeles, where he attempts to redeem himself by helping his friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, while doing his best to survive his own rough life on a day-to-day basis. True to his name, Socrates Fortlow is a street-smart philosopher, grappling with the complex question of how to live a moral life in an imperfect world. Fortlow appears again as the protagonist in Walkin' the Dog (1999), described variously as a novel or short story cycle, in which he organizes his community in protest against police brutality. Mosley returned to the genre of historical crime fiction with Fearless Jones (2001), set in the Watts district of Los Angeles during the 1950s. The novel introduces a new pair of reluctant detective heroes in the persons of Fearless Jones and Paris Minton. Paris, a used-bookstore owner, is drawn into a world of crime and intrigue as he investigates the disappearance of a mysterious woman. Similar to Easy Rawlins' relationship with Mouse, Paris enlists his friend Fearless, an uncompromising ex-soldier, to assist him in his quest. Mosley revisited the 1950s Los Angeles of Fearless Jones in Fear Itself (2003), in which Fearless convinces Paris to help him look for a missing woman, Kit Mitchell. Their investigation leads them into a convoluted web of schemes involving an emerald pendant, the missing woman, a family diary, murder, and corruption.
A marked departure from Mosley's previous works, Blue Light (1998) has been variously interpreted as a science fiction allegory or parable. Set in the San Francisco Bay area during the 1960s, a group of people are affected by a mysterious blue light emanating from the sky. The light physically transforms anyone that comes into contact with it, changing them into superhuman versions of their past selves. The affected individuals—known collectively as “the Blues”—form a special community that is challenged with a battle against evil. In 2004 Mosley published The Man in My Basement, which also differs significantly from his past detective fiction. The novel focuses on Charles Blakey, an African American man descended from 17th-century American freed slaves, and Anniston Bennet, a mysterious white man who shows up on Blakey's doorstep in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Bennett has come to ask Blakey if he can live in the basement of Blakey's home, which has been owned by the Blakey family for two hundred years. Blakey reluctantly accepts the offer, and the philosophical novel utilizes the ongoing debates that occur between the two characters as a tool to examine a variety of social and racial issues. In addition to his fictional works, Mosley has also published two works of polemical nonfiction—Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History (2000) and What Next: A Memoir toward World Peace (2003)—which both focus on social, political, and cultural issues relevant to modern African Americans.
Mosley has attracted both a large popular audience and critical acclaim for his crime and detective novels. He has been celebrated for effectively working within the tradition of hard-boiled detective fiction while expanding the themes and settings of the genre to address issues of history, community, and the overall African American experience. His portrayals of the post-World War II African American community and the Civil Rights era have been particularly praised as intricate representations of important periods in American cultural history. Scholars have also lauded Mosley's emphasis on creating complex and appealing black male protagonists. Several reviewers have commended Mosley for consistently presenting morally ambiguous worlds in his fiction, while also keeping a firm focus on the daily struggles—personal, financial, and cultural—of his primary characters. Though Mosley's Easy Rawlins series has received a generally warm reception from audiences, Blue Light has been met with decidedly mixed, and often negative, critical assessments. Many commentators have argued that the novel is overly esoteric and violent, asserting that the text unsuccessfully attempts to abandon Mosley's previous prose style. Others have countered these claims and noted that the novel reads as an ambitious allegory of modern times.