Walter Mosley | Critical Essay by Greg Tate

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Walter Mosley.
This section contains 1,136 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Greg Tate

SOURCE: "Ain't That a Shamus," in VLS, No. 109, October, 1992, p. 41.

In the following essay, Tate highlights the elements of Mosley's writing that elevate it from simple mystery fiction to a more profound examination of racial and interpersonal issues.

What makes Walter Mosley's mysteries so compelling isn't his man Easy Rawlins's powers of ratiocination but the black dick's racial metaphysics. Race politics foreshadow the action in these books the way decadence foreshadowed everything that happened in Raymond Chandler's. Mosley doesn't just raise the race card to thicken the plot. He beats you down with spades, then rubs your nose in ethnic stool. Says Easy Rawlins:

I had played the game of "cops and niggers" before. The cops pick you up, take your name and fingerprints, then they throw you into a holding tank with other "suspects" and drunks. After you were sick from the vomit and foul language they'd take you to another room and ask why you robbed that liquor store or what did you do with the money? [Devil in a Blue Dress]

The spotlight Mosley throws on race as power game and psychoanalytic tool makes him matter more than his being a black guy writing detective fiction straight outta 1950s Compton. Mosley is a savvy observer-philosopher first, and a mystery writer second.

His black literary forebears are everywhere in evidence. Baldwin broke the Foucauldian ground Mosley likes to work, interrogating white supremacy everywhere, from the corridors of power to the souls of black folk; race is not so much Mosley's "theme" as the grid set on top of his American characters. Ellison's influence shows as Mosley works the paradox of how black folks' retarded social position provides certain intellectual and moral advantages Rawlins tells the story:

Mr. Todd Carter was so rich that he didn't even consider me in human terms. He could tell me anything. I could have been a prized dog that he knelt to and hugged when he felt low.

It was the worst kind of racism. The fact that he didn't even recognize our difference showed that he didn't care one damn about me. But I didn't have the time to worry about it. I just watched him move his lips about lost love until, finally, I began to see him as some strange being. Like a baby who, grows to man-size and terrorizes his poor parents with his strength and his stupidity. [Devil in a Blue Dress]

In all of American fiction, only Richard Wright treats America's race problem more savagely as the shaper and breaker of men, women, and children. The black mystery's avant-garde—Chester Himes and his hoodoo stepchild, Ishmael Reed—would smile with recognition at every cartoonish plot turn, and at Mosley's wealth of exaggerated working-class character types. But Mosley's work is more psychologically insightful, empathetic, and pathos-ridden than that of Reed or Himes, and merely a hair less crazed with invention. In bridging the gap between naturalism and Negro-ism, Mosley creates queasily poignant moments that bring to mind his fellow Los Angelenophile, filmmaker Charles Burnett….

Mosley writes in a page-turning style filled with tough, terse, sucker-punch sentences. White Butterfly, his third book in the Easy Rawlins series, lacks Devil in a Blue Dress's big surprises, and A Red Death's Herculean kitchen-sink subplotting. (Book two had tangents sprung loose from such fact-totems as the Holocaust, Garveyism, McCarthyism, black-Jewish relations, and black-church soap-operatic skull-duggery all woven into a demented plot of domestic violence, madness, and murder.) However, for all the riches that preceded it, White Butterfly is the Easy Rawlins book with the heaviest heart, the deepest soul, the most boiling-over racial brain matter. Rawlins is so color-sensitive in this book that not even his librarian is spared the African-centric ire:

To her Shakespeare was a god. I didn't mind that, but what did she know about the folk tales and riddles and stories colored folks had been telling for centuries? What did she know about the language we spoke?

I always heard her correcting children's speech. "Not 'I is,'" she'd say. "It's 'I am.'"

And, of course, she was right. It's just that little colored children listening to that proper white woman would never hear their own cadence in her words. They'd come to believe that they would have to abandon their own language and stories to become a part of her educated world. They would have to forfeit Waller for Mozart and Remus for Puck. They would enter a world where only white people spoke.

Easy Rawlins was born emotionally complex, ethically confusing, intellectually enraged, and engaged. In A Red Death, Rawlins is revealed as a property owner who pretends he's a handyman to throw black and white folks off his well-endowed hide. He is a college-educated war veteran who speaks mushmouth black English to stay down with the folk and to divert white anxieties about smart niggas.

As Rawlins matures in the first two books, his deceits seem less strategic than eccentric, unanalyzed, maybe even counter-productive. White Butterfly pushes at Rawlins's existential doubt by way of the blues strains that turn up in his relationship with his younger, apprehensive wife. Even in the wake of raising an infant with her, Rawlins has told his hardworking spouse—a nurses' aide at the local hospital—nothing of his hidden wealth or his secret life as the 'hood's resident private eye. But she knows he's hiding something, denying her access to his life. The serial murders of prostitutes that are ostensibly the mystery element in White Butterfly are really just props for Mosley's handling of the Rawlinses' misshapen marriage:

"If you love me you just take me like I am. I ain't never hurt you, have I?"

Regina just stared.

"Have I?"

"No. You ain't laid a hand on me. Not that way."

"What's that s'posed to mean?"…

"You don't hit me but you do other things just as bad."

"Like what?"

Regina was looking at my hands. I looked down myself to see clenched fists.

"Last night," she said. "What you call that?"

"Call what?"

"What you did to me. I didn't want none'a you. But you made me. You raped me."

"Rape?" I laughed. "Man cain't rape his own wife."

My laugh died when I saw the angry tears in Regina's eyes.

What emerges within Mosley's fluent mystery is a subtle essay on black male anxiety about openness, intimacy, and vulnerability. Mosley deftly meshes Rawlins's domestic troubles with the standard pulp fare: brutal cops, homicidal patriarchs, wicked sirens, surrealist nightmares. His crisp and writerly sleight-of-hand won't let you be distracted from the pulp by Rawlins's failure as a husband—but you know that is where Mosley's heart lies. In fact, the contrast between the profane and the profound dimensions of the story makes you wonder if Mosley will opt next to further deepen the genre with these sorts of interpersonal issues, as Chandler did around male-bonding in The Long Goodbye—or whether he'll move outside the genre altogether.

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This section contains 1,136 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Greg Tate
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