Known to Evil by Walter Mosley
This is the second in the series by Walter Mosley featuring Leonid McGill. Following on The Long Fall, we are pitched back into the realpolitik of New York with our eponymous hero working directly for Alphonse Rinaldo — a fictional consigliere to the Mayor who fixes what the city needs.
It’s always interesting to see how a series develops its own agenda. Although ostensibly about a PI solving crimes, Mosley is more interested in exploring the relationships between people based on how honest they are. In this, the touchstone of honesty is applied not just in what they say, but also in what they do. A man may be without conscience when it comes to killing. This is a brutal kind of honesty and, once you are aware of this man’s character, you can define the relationship you can form with him. In this, it’s possible to separate the essential nature of the man from what he may sometimes do. He may be unfailingly loyal to his friends, a wise counsellor and, if needed, a defender of the innocent. Are we to say this is not a good man. Morality is always an exercise in relativism. Although Kant and other philosophers prefer to define some moral principles in absolute terms, such certainty rarely works in all cultural contexts. Circumstances dictate exceptions to every rule.
Within his marriage, McGill’s relationship with his wife is defined by what he does not say and do. When he does speak, it’s usually to lie about what their sons are doing. Dimitri, his son by blood, rarely speaks to his father. Twill, who was born during the marriage but not with McGill as his father, is a kind of spiv in the making. So far, his criminality is relatively low level, but he has an easy-going charm that may mark him out for an effective life in sales. Whether this will be selling the Brooklyn Bridge or more legitimate property remains to be seen. Shelly, a daughter, is not relevant to this story.
This is not to undervalue the racial element that runs as a steady thread throughout almost all Mosley’s fiction. But, rather in the same way that the U.S. has become increasingly unwilling to discuss the structural and institutionalised racism that permeates so much of its life, so Mosely is here more oblique in his treatment of racial issues. That Dimitri spends the book infatuated with and hiding a high-class Russian prostitute from her pimp is never commented on. That various white men and women physically threaten McGill is simply the way the world works when words are not a sufficient deterrent. It’s left to the reader to impose his or her own interpretation on events. This is a significant shift from the Easy Rawlins, Socrates Fortlow and some of the stand-alone novels like The Man In My Basement where the discussion of race is overt. I mention this shift not to suggest that Mosely is himself becoming less honest. It’s entirely possible he has toned it down because, in these increasingly hypocritical times, the more honest books about race relations in the U.S. do not sell. Authors who want to earn a living cannot afford to alienate too many of their readers.
In fact, Mosley engages in a nice piece of misdirection. Having been raised by a political activist, the younger McGill still carries the intellectual baggage of the communist idealism that drove his father. So, in various reminiscences punctuating the interior monologue, we are treated to some of the wisdom of his father. As explicit commentary on the U.S. and its current political stance, it draws attention away from the subtext of race.
Overall, this is another fast-paced PI novel where, from the moment he accepts the assignment from Rinaldo, he is fighting to thwart a malicious plot to kill the named young woman. In the midst of this, he must save his sons from their well-intentioned desire to take on a major prostitution ring, help a man whose life he blighted in the past, and offer physical support for an ageing surrogate father figure. Did I mention decisions about what to do about his marriage and resolving issues with his girlfriend? And then there’s the new manager of the building where he has his offices. He would prefer McGill to leave. This is a classic recipe of ingredients, all stirred together with style and panache by a wonderful writer.
This is a terrific PI novel. Start with The Long Fall, the first in the series, to understand who everyone is.
For a review of the last two Easy Rawlins novela, see Blonde Faith and Little Green. The third and fourth Leonid McGill novels are When the Thrill Is Gone and All I Did Was Shoot My Man. The new stand-alone pairs of novellas are The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin and Merge and Disciple. Now comes a new ebook, Jack Strong.