The Long Fall by Walter Mosley
Authors build up a routine, a template to follow when constructing a novel. They have experience in what works well and, as those who like idioms are wont to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So it is with Walter Mosley. Having reached a “Reichenbach falls” moment with Easy Rawlins in Blonde Faith, we are off with a new series character called Leonid McGill (that’s Leonid as in Brezhnev and a not-quite nod in the direction of the Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald). The latest book is called The Long Fall, a reference to both a nightmare that plagues Leonid and the fact that, despite his best efforts to reform, he may be unable to prevent himself from becoming as criminal as many of his New York clients.
The question asked by all who want to write a novel about a private investigator is what elements to add to the plotting mix. The answer is easy to give. The series character must have a shady past. He may have done time or had close encounters of the legal kind. Many of those he knows are active criminals or work very close to the edge of criminality. He must have relationship problems with women and at least one of the women he meets will be stunningly beautiful. Surrounding him are an unofficial team of helpers and at least one of them is his muscle — a feared figure on the local scene who will always back him up in a crisis. The majority of the cops will be on the take but one may be honest and respect what the PI does. The work he is given will always potentially require him to break the law. Indeed, the majority of cases will be resolved in ways which do break the law, but he always manages to avoid prosecution so he can return in the next book. More often than not, he is honourable and loyal to his friends. He will be righteous and protect the innocent wherever possible. Stir well and throw in other less clichéd ideas and, all other things being equal, a reasonable narrative will emerge.
Whether it will be worth reading is another matter. There are remarkably clear dividing lines between the wannabe writers, the average published writers and the best. Walter Mosley is one of the best writers around, not just in mystery fiction, but in all fiction and non-fiction. In his fiction, he contrives to maintain interest in the narrative through credible characterisation and an ability to pick just the right words to describe each mise en scène and capture the spirit of events. Although there are a number of key similarities between all the main protagonists created by Mosley, each one manages to emerge as his own man. In this case, Leonid has been afflicted by guilt and wishes to reform — his past employers prefer him to continue to offer his services. He is caught between two women, the children in his life need a watchful eye and now an emerging series of murders may soon include his own death. To escape from impending doom, he must tap into his contacts and call in a few favours. Escaping from the women will obviously take several volumes in the series.
The subtext of race relations in the US is slightly understated. As a work set in contemporary times, it allows a more cynical, if not sardonic, view to stand on the page with only a few direct comments. There are events with a clear racial element but Mosley is not crusading. People are who they are and portrayed as more comfortable in their own skins than the characters in many of his other novels.
At the time I wrote this review, this was a stand-alone novel of a PI trying to earn a crust in contemporary New York. If you have not tried Mosley, this is as good a place to start as any. I strongly recommend it. And, when you have finished this, go on to the next three in the series, Known To Evil, When the Thrill Is Gone and All I Did Was Shoot My Man. There’s a new stand-alone series of pairs of novellas The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin and Merge and Disciple.