By Lise Funderburg
Whenever Walter Mosley comes out with a new Easy Rawlins mystery — his fourth, and best, Black Betty, was published in June — fifteen sorry souls give themselves a swift kick. These are the literary agents who turned down Mosley’s first book, Gone Fishin’, which told of Easy’s Texas childhood.
While other writers might have thrown in the towel at that point, Mosley tried another approach. He followed Graham Greene’s lead: hired to write the screenplay for The Third Man (Mosley’s favorite film), Greene decided to pen it first as a novel to work out the story’s kinks. Mosley pretended that he, too, had been contracted by Hollywood, and his first Easy Rawlins mystery, Devil in a Blue Dress, poured forth. Devil picks up Easy’s life as an adult. After returning from World War Two, he follows the many southern black Americans who had moved to Los Angeles. Easy builds a small, clandestine real-estate empire there and comes to be known around the ‘hood as a man who can find things out — for a price.
“I never thought, This is a mystery,” Mosley explains. “Never, no, no, no.” Only when the book was almost complete did he say, “Wow, I guess it’s a mystery.” Devil was picked up immediately and published in 1990. Mosley, now forty-two, followed with A Red Death, White Butterfly and Black Betty.
Unlike most mystery detectives — who age in microscopic increments, if at all — Easy clearly moves forward and the world around him changes. But to the relief of his fans, Mosley believes there are plenty of stories to take Easy into the 1990s. “I always planned to write a lot of books,” Mosley says, a Cheshire smile curling at the edges of his mouth. “When I started Gone Fishin’, I said, ‘I want to follow this guy through his life, I want to follow the migration to L.A., I want to follow different times and experiences of this guy.'”
Mosley says nobody has written about South Central, the L.A. neighborhood where Easy lives and Mosley spent his childhood. Indeed, Mosley writes about people, places and textures that don’t often make their way into best-sellers. No one is a mere prop in these books, not even the most incidental characters.
“Most people who are writing don’t know much about black people,” Mosley says. “I mean white people or people other than black people. Or even black people who are writing with a political or social agenda, because they start to write about people in certain ways.”
Mosley pauses, his clear brown eyes focussed on where to go next, which intellectual string to pull. Does he feel a compulsion to write about racism? “If I write about Easy’s life, it’s something he can’t escape. And he experiences it on two levels. He experiences it really in the world and, to a greater degree, in his head. So he’s always having to figure out how he’s relating to white people. Are they being racist? Is he wrong? He just doesn’t know.”
As much as he likes Easy and the success of his books, Mosley won’t be pigeonholed. He has revised Gone Fishin’; is two drafts into another novel, RL’s Dream; and has just finished a screenplay he’ll only describe for now as a “hood thing” — all before heading to L.A. to watch Carl Franklin (One False Move) direct Denzel Washington in the film version of Devil in a Blue Dress. (Mosley tried to write the script and laughingly admits failure. “I wrote this book and I like it, so why would I change it? Carl sees a movie in his head: the book is just material for him, which it should be.”)
“Whenever people ghettoize you in anything, they limit you,” says the man who’s been dubbed Clinton’s favorite detective novelist. “People say, ‘Here’s my friend, Walter Mosley, the mystery writer.’ Then they say, ‘Here’s my friend, Norman Mailer, the novelist.’ And you look and you say, ‘Well, what am I? Chopped liver?'”