Authors: Walter Mosley

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Devil in a Blue Dress, 1990

A Red Death, 1991

White Butterfly, 1992

Black Betty, 1994

RL’s Dream, 1995

A Little Yellow Dog, 1996

Gone Fishin’, 1997

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, 1998

Blue Light, 1998

Walkin’ the Dog, 1999

Fearless Jones, 2001

Bad Boy Brawly Brown, 2002

Short Fiction:

Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World, 2001

Six Easy Pieces: Easy Rawlins Stories, 2003

Nonfiction:

Workin’ on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History, 2000

Edited Text:

Black Genius: African American Solutions to African American Problems, 1999 (with others)

Biography

With the publication of his first detective novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley accomplished the difficult feat of bringing a fresh perspective to that genre, the hardboiled detective story, in which few writers have equalled–and none have improved–upon the style as it was as originally fashioned by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The terse prose, sarcastic wit, and tough-guy action that mark their books have served as the yardstick against which all newcomers are measured and most are found wanting. Mosley, however, succeeded in carving out a place for himself within the genre. Although his books are, like Chandler’s, set in Los Angeles, Mosley’s detective is African American and his world is the world of Watts and South Central. That setting may be geographically close to Chandler’s “mean streets,” but it is light-years away from them in every other regard. Mosley’s detective, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, moves within the setting of his creator’s own childhood, and his community is the one in which Mosley was raised.{$I[AN]9810001744}{$I[A]Mosley, Walter}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Mosley, Walter}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Mosley, Walter}{$I[tim]1952;Mosley, Walter}

Walter Mosley

(Courtesy, Allen & Unwin)

Born in the Watts district of Los Angeles, Mosley is the son of an African American father, who worked as a school custodian, and a white, Jewish mother, who was employed as a clerk by the Board of Education. Mosley grew up listening to stories of his father’s youth in the South and of his mother’s Russian Jewish family. After graduating from high school, he enrolled first in Goddard College in Vermont and later graduated from Johnson State College. A brief period in graduate school at the University of Minnesota ended when he moved to Boston to continue his relationship with the dancer/ choreographer Joy Kellerman, whom he married in 1987.

While living in Boston, Mosley worked as a caterer and a potter. Following his move to New York with Kellerman in 1982 he switched to computer programming. He had always been an avid reader, but it was only after reading Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple (1982) that he realized for the first time that there was a place in literature for his own experience. He was inspired to try his hand at writing and completed a novella entitled Gone Fishin’ while attending creative writing classes at New York’s City College. In that work, which remained unpublished until 1997, he first used the character who later became the focus of his detective novels, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins.

Based in part on his father’s experiences as a black man from the South who had emigrated to Los Angeles after World War II, the saga of Easy Rawlins is also the history of that city’s African American community. Although the novels’ structure is that of the traditional detective novel, Mosley’s ultimate intent is to chronicle the community in which he was raised and the changes it had undergone since the late 1940’s.

Like the author, Rawlins is a veteran who finds that his military service overseas does not bring him more respect or better treatment back home. The first book in the series, Devil in a Blue Dress, opens with Easy’s being laid off from his defense plant job and undertaking some investigative work in an effort to meet his mortgage payments. The plot is set at a time when Los Angeles’s African American community was in its heyday: Stores and jazz clubs lined Central Avenue and black Americans expected that their contributions to the war effort would bring them a share of the postwar prosperity. Easy’s investigation into a woman’s disappearance, however, reveals just how wide the economic and social gap between the races had remained.

Devil in a Blue Dress brought Mosley an Edgar nomination from the Mystery Writers of America and firmly established his reputation as a writer. In his second book, A Red Death, Mosley draws on his dual heritage as both an African American and a Jew in his portrayal of the relationship–increasingly frayed in more recent years–between the African American and Jewish communities. The novel is set during the McCarthy era and finds Easy forced to cooperate with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in their investigation of a Jewish union organizer, an Eastern European who reawakens Easy’s dark memories of the liberation of the concentration camps. Mosley is often identified solely in terms of his African American heritage, but in A Red Death he acknowledges his mother’s legacy.

Mosley’s books often focus on racial discrimination and the frustration and rage it can engender. Easy’s dealings with the police are sometimes marked by gross injustice and brutality, which instill in him an anger that he only rarely dares to express. White Butterfly, Mosley’s third novel in the series, deals with discrimination against the entire African American community as the murders of several black women are ignored until a white woman also falls victim to the killer. The next book, Black Betty, also explores the tremendous disparity in the way people of different races are treated; here the title character is a once vibrant and seductive woman who works as a maid in the home of a wealthy and powerful white family.

Mosley’s love of blues music led him to venture outside the detective genre for his fifth novel, RL’s Dream, a well-received portrait of a dying blues musician and the culture that shaped his life. With A Little Yellow Dog, Mosley returned to Easy Rawlins, by this time a school janitor in 1963. His efforts to get off the street seem about to come to naught when he becomes involved in a double murder revolving around an attractive white teacher at the school. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned again leaves Easy for another character, Socrates Fortlow, a former convict trying to come to terms with life in Watts in a series of fourteen interconnected short stories. Fortlow reappears in Walkin’ the Dog. Blue Light marked Mosley’s foray into science fiction. The novel concerns mysterious blue lights that flicker in the Northern California skies, causing those they strike to develop a higher understanding of human purpose. Walkin’ the Dog returns to the character of Socrates Fortlow, still facing moral dilemmas in the Los Angeles ghetto. Fearless Jones introduced yet another eponymous protagonist, working the private detective gig in 1950’s Los Angeles. Bad Boy Brawly Brown returns to Easy Rawlins, this time struggling through the racial tensions simmering in Los Angeles in 1964 and the rise of black militancy.

For all of Mosley’s forays into other genres and other characters, it is his Easy Rawlins novels that receive the greatest attention, for in them Mosley illuminates a part of Los Angeles history that had been long ignored. In the detective series he created books that are both familiar and startlingly original, taking his readers down a much-traveled road to a new destination.

BibliographyBunyan, Scott. “No Order from Chaos: The Absence of Chandler’s Extra-Legal Space in the Detective Fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley.” Studies in the Novel 35 (Fall, 2003). Reveals Chandler’s influence on the work of Mosley and Himes; also references the trickster motif.Coale, Samuel. The Mystery of Mysteries: Cultural Differences and Designs. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999. Coale looks at the cultural issues in the works of mystery writers Mosley, Amanda Cross, James Lee Burke, and Tony Hillerman. Contains an interview with Mosley.Gray, W. Russel. “Hard-Boiled Black Easy: Genre Conventions in A Red Death.” African American Review 38 (Fall, 2004): 489-499. Demonstrates how Mosley uses popular culture forms to critique racial hypocrisy.Lock, Helen. “Invisible Detection: The Case of Walter Mosley.” MELUS 26 (Spring, 2001): 77-89. Mosley is presented as an exemplar of African American noir, hard-boiled detective fiction.Mason, Theodore O., Jr. “Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins: The Detective and Afro-American Fiction.” Kenyon Review 14 (Fall, 1992): 173-183. Shows Mosley’s similarity to other modern African American writers in his emphasis on genealogy and origin.Smith, David L. “Walter Mosley’s Blue Light: (Double Consciousness)2.” Extrapolation 42 (Spring, 2001): 7-26. Analysis of Mosley’s philosophy in Blue Light, in which blue light is associated with God.Wesley, Marilyn C. “Knowledge and Power in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress.” African American Review 35 (Spring, 2001): 103-116. Examines the status of black empowerment after World War II, comparing Mosley’s work with British detective novels of the same period.Wilson, Charles E., Jr. Walter Mosley: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. This volume examines the life and works of Mosley, containing chapters on some of his most famous books.Young, Mary. “Walter Mosley, Detective Fiction, and Black Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture 32 (Summer, 1998): 141-150. Discusses the use of African American folklore, the trickster, and the bad black man in Mosley’s work.
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