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Critical Essay by Sara M. Lomax
SOURCE: "Double Agent Easy Rawlins," in American Visions, Vol. 7, No. 2, April-May 1992, pp. 32-4.
In the following essay, Lomax describes Mosley as possessing a "special talent for altering time and place with words and ideas" which "ripples across every page of his novels."
Pecking absently at his computer during a lunch break six years ago, Walter Mosley wrote these words: "On hot sticky days in Louisiana the fire ants swarmed."
"I loved it," says the 40-year-old detective novelist, author of Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death and the soon-to-be-released White Butterfly. "I thought, Maybe I could do something with this."
Mosley's simple, eloquent phrase served as a catalyst for his career as a novelist, revealing a special talent for altering time and place with words and ideas. This talent ripples across every page of his novels. With vivid descriptions and masterful imagery, Mosley reconstructs Los Angeles during the post-World War II era—from an African-American perspective.
He guides readers through a maze of smoky juke joints, corrupt politics and violent conflict, all filtered through the eyes of Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, the alternately honorable and shady main character of the detective series. With an intuitive spirit and a level head, Easy works the detective beat to garner personal security and financial prosperity.
"I was in the business of favors," he explains. "I'd do something for somebody, like find a missing husband or figure out who's been breaking into so-and-so's store, and then maybe they could do me a good turn one day."
Mosley introduced Easy Rawlins two years ago in his first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress. Hired by DeWitt Albright, a white man who wears a transparent veneer of civility, Easy must locate the white mistress of Albright's powerful employer. Since she is known to hang out in black jazz clubs, Easy is identified as the man for the job. Easy is the door through which the white establishment must enter the black community.
"On one hand, [Easy is] like an Everyman who describes the Southwest black migration," Mosley says. "He's the voice of a million people who moved out of their sharecropping days and came into Southern California."
On the other hand, he has the hardened perspective of a man who has experienced the reality of war—and peace. Returning to L.A. after fighting in World War II, Easy is confronted with a hostile America, a nation unwilling to celebrate black contributions and resentful of African Americans' demand for equality.
"I had spent five years with white men, and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself," says Easy bitterly in the opening pages of Devil in a Blue Dress. "I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was."
Each of Mosley's novels reveals the precarious position of the African American in mainstream society. Easy functions on the fringes of that society, in a place called the black community. And if whites need to penetrate this world, they must first employ a sort of double agent, someone with a wavering conscience who is respected by the community. Easy Rawlins fits the bill.
Still, he constantly struggles with the duality of his life—working for a power structure that despises him and living in a community that trusts him with their personal secrets, the tools of his trade.
In A Red Death, Easy uses stolen money to purchase several real estate properties. In order to keep a low profile, he hires a grisly, hard-nosed man named Mofass to act as landlord while he fronts as the janitor. But when the Internal Revenue Service threatens to conduct an audit of his finances, Easy buckles under the pressure and dons his double-agent mask.
Easy's progression from bitter World War II vet in Devil in a Blue Dress to financially independent yet vulnerable businessman in A Red Death to White Butterfly, in which he is older and married, illustrates the evolution of Mosley's character.
"One of my criticisms of people who write a series is that, even if the story changes, the character doesn't," says Mosley from his home in New York City's West Village. "So I want Easy to get old and get changed." According to Mosley, who intends to write at least six more novels to complete this particular detective series, Easy will have plenty of space to grow.
White Butterfly, which will be available in July, is the third volume in the series, and it has all the moody mystery, intrigue and deception evident in Mosley's first two novels. Set in late 1956 Los Angeles, White Butterfly drags Easy into the middle of a murder investigation. A serial killer slaying black showgirls from Watts goes on a rampage unpursued by the police. But when a white stripper known as the White Butterfly is added to the list, Easy is brought onto the scene.
Mosley's penetrating prose rings true because he writes from a point of understanding. Born January 12, 1952, in Southeast Los Angeles, Mosley grew up surrounded by people who had trekked from the deep South to Los Angeles in search of the American dream. Both of his parents were teachers, providing him with a solid educational foundation.
After graduating from Johnson State College in Vermont in 1975, Mosley worked as a potter, a caterer and a computer programmer. In 1981 he headed to New York City, continuing to work in computer programming. Six years ago, he decided he wanted to be a writer. So, with $300 in his hand, he bought a typewriter in the hopes of launching a writing career.
Although rejection and disappointment were his companions at the outset—his first attempt at a novel was turned down by 15 agents—his determination never wavered.
"I feel no matter what, my parents will be there for me. I've always felt like that," Mosley says. "So I wasn't afraid of failing as a writer."
And he hasn't. On the contrary, Mosley has received rave reviews for his first two novels. He has written a screenplay of Devil in a Blue Dress for Universal Pictures, and he recently received the John Creasey Memorial award in England and the Shamus Award, both for outstanding mystery writing.
Part of Mosley's success has been attributed to the fact that few black authors have chosen this area of fiction. But the roots of black detective writing run deep. "There has always been this reasoning process in black literature—looking at clues, trying to figure out what's going on," says Houston A. Baker Jr., founder and director of the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the Modern Language Association. "To a certain extent the African-American slave narratives are concerned with figuring out 'who stole the soul?' [The slaves] wake up in a different land with a different language and are left, in a sense, to uncover the mystery. They basically become cultural detectives."
Will Gibson, president of the 4,000-member American Black Book Writers Association, says, "We are very proud of Walter Mosley's presence in the detective novel genre. The overall body of African-American literature is not complete unless the other genres are heard from. When we find these various voids beginning to be filled, that's exciting. That's what will make a total body of literature."
Broadening his creative domain. Mosley is working on a coming-of-age novel, Cleo and Arn, about a black boy who straddles two worlds—life in a Harlem housing project and a job running errands on Wall Street. Mosley is also working on a novel about the legendary blues lyricist and guitarist Robert Johnson, someone he describes as "a real, unadulterated genius in America."
For those aspiring writers facing a blank screen every day, Mosley offers this advice: "Work very hard, take criticism with a grain of salt and don't lose faith, because you have to learn how to enjoy pain."
This section contains 1,313 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)