Walter Mosley 1952–
The following entry provides criticism of Mosley's work through 1996.
Employing rich characterization and dialogue, vivid imagery and settings, and a realistic portrayal of social and racial themes, Mosley is widely regarded as one of the leading practitioners of the genre of detective fiction. In the character of his reluctant, street-smart private eye, Ezekial "Easy" Rawlins, Mosley created a vehicle for depicting the grim and often violent realities of the African-American underclass in postwar Los Angeles. His works have garnered him both wide popular and critical praise as well as favorable comparisons to such forerunners of the contemporary detective novel as Raymond Chandler and Chester Himes. The often darkly humorous exploration of ethical dilemmas in Mosley's fiction and his colorful exploitation of the musical potential of language and colloquial dialogue have earned him a reputation, according to one reviewer, "as a top-ranking writer in the mystery division."
The child of a Jewish mother and a black father, Mosley grew up in south-central Los Angeles, immersed in the African-American oral storytelling tradition passed on to him by his father and cousins, who, like Mosley's protagonist Easy Rawlins, came to California from the South after World War II in search of work. "One of the things about the black experience," Mosley has said, "is that we have an incredibly rich oral history and great stories that are begging to be told. I'm writing them down." Yet Mosley turned to writing only after moving to the East Coast, attending college in Vermont, and working as a computer programmer in New York City for several years. While taking creative writing courses in New York in the late eighties, Mosley showed his instructor, novelist Frederic Tuten, the manuscript for Devil in a Blue Dress. Tuten passed it on to his agent, who sold the book almost immediately to publisher W. W. Norton. After the novel met with widespread critical and popular success, Mosley's three succeeding novels broadened his following and brought him nominations for fiction awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the Private Eye Writers of America, and Britain's Crime Writers' Association.
In the first Easy Rawlins novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), Mosley's cynical but well-intentioned private eye agrees to locate a missing white woman known to frequent jazz clubs in the black neighborhoods of postwar Los Angeles. In his second work, A Red Death (1991), Mosley set the action in 1953, with Rawlins forced by the FBI to spy on a Jewish union official suspected of being a Communist. Set in 1956, Mosley's third novel, White Butterfly (1992), continued to reflect Mosley's intention to trace Rawlins' changing circumstances over time, depicting a newly married and prosperous Rawlins as he agrees to work with the Los Angeles police to hunt down a serial killer. In Black Betty (1994), Easy agrees to search for the title character, a femme fatale figure from his youth whose fate has become a mystery. Also in 1994, Devil in a Blue Dress was made into a feature film, and Mosley announced plans to expand the Easy Rawlins series to nine or ten books, of which six have so far been published. In the same year, Mosley also completed R. L.'s Dream, a novel about a jazz musician who travels back in time to perform with blues legend Robert Johnson. Mosley described this work as both an exploration of "the negative space in the blues" and an attempt to "bring a sense of mystery to the blues." Mosley returned to the Rawlins series in 1996 with A Little Yellow Dog and Gone Fishin', the first novel in the series lacking a color in its title. In A Little Yellow Dog, Rawlins has established a reputable life for himself and his two adopted children when he finds himself drawn back into the L. A. underworld to help a woman escape her abusive husband. In Gone Fishin', Mosley goes back to the beginning of Rawlins' story, allowing readers to meet the 19-year-old Easy and his sidekick, Mouse, a familiar character from the series, and follows the pair on an adventurous road trip that forms the basis of their friendship through the decades to come.
Mosley's vivid and convincing portrayal of the personalities, locales, and violence of a racially diverse and economically hopeless urban environment in Devil in a Blue Dress brought him wide praise, and the novel was commended for its "startling originality of imagery," "snappy dialogue," "dead-on believable characters," and "lowdown humor." Critical approval of this and Mosley's later novels, however, also focused on Mosley's ability to create a complex and sympathetic hero in the form of Easy Rawlins, who strives to overcome his own flaws and make the right choices in a dangerous and morally ambiguous world. Mosley has at times been criticized for his "functional" or "too complicated" plots as well as for his sometimes "stiff" prose, but as his novels have become increasingly dark, even fatalistic, the critical reception of his work on the whole has remained warm. While working within and reacting to the traditions of the hardboiled detective novel, Mosley's self-professed goals of "trying to reflect life in America" and "doing something different in an interesting new way" have enabled him to create what John Williams in New Statesman & Society has described as "a massive portrait of life in black Los Angeles over the postwar period."