Ripples in a still pool. It’s an evocative image. Except pools are rarely still and, to produce the ripples, you need an outside force. It can be something as mundane as the wind ruffling the surface, or it can be a human force. A hand dropping or throwing a stone will produce the effect, assuming the pool is deep enough to absorb the stone without splashing all the water out on to the surrounding earth. In some ways, All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley (Riverhead Books, 2012) is a book about karmic balance. We go through life dropping or throwing stones into the succession of pools we pass or, perhaps, it’s always the same pool we keep circling — I need to work on my metaphor a little more to get this clear. Anyway, we drop these stones and there are plenty of ripples. We can watch them and judge. Some sets of ripples may meet our criteria for righteousness in action. Others will represent guilt through wrongdoing. Those of us afflicted with a conscience will sometimes try to take back the guilty stones. Except, to do that, you have to plunge your arm into the pool and grab the relevant stones. This arm movement has the same effect as the original stones, and completely new ripples spread out across the pool.
Our series character, Leonid McGill is a man on a mission to try to set the world right again. Except, as he discovers in this case, he can actually cause more harm as a result of his attempts at atonement. Leonid is not a simple Christian seeking salvation for a past sins. This is a more complicated man who’s trying to redefine a new moral centre for himself and in his relationships with others. He sees the world clearly for what it is. This doesn’t mean he’s free from prejudices. Put him in the same room as someone oozing money, and the teachings of his communist father predispose him to anger. Have someone weak and vulnerable ask for help and he’s sometimes too willing to help. By that I mean he’s willing to do whatever may be necessary to keep that person safe. If that means deciding whether to remove a threat, he will face the decision honestly. He has killed and is prepared to do so again. He feels better about it when he acts in self-defence or the defence of others. In a way, this makes Leonid McGill a slightly different PI hero. Walter Mosley specialises in writing about strong men, but we now see they fall into two groups. Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones prefer to be left alone. They have to be pushed into situations where helping others becomes necessary. Altruism doesn’t come to them naturally. But Socrates Fortlow and Leonid McGill accept a responsibility to save the world. Although in fairness, both are realistic enough to acknowledge the world is a big place and, sometimes, you can only work one miracle at a time.
So, eight years ago, when McGill was still wearing his criminal hat, he framed a woman as having a part in a major robbery. She was a convenient target, having just taken a gun to her husband. It was a crime of passion, he was in bed with another woman at the time and she failed to kill him. Now he’s used his legal contacts to have her conviction for the robbery quashed. Except this triggers an increasingly dangerous confrontation with the actual criminals who stole the money, the police who want to know why McGill is helping this woman, and the company that lost millions in the robbery and is convinced the woman knows where it is. To add to the pot, we have an immensely wealthy man who’s having trouble with his son and knows McGill can be relied on in tough situations. This time, however, Leonid has different resource to call into play. In the hope of saving his own son from a criminal career, he’s giving him the rich boy as his first case for the family firm. It soon becomes obvious that the heir to the throne is more into criminal activity than his father suggested and it could be rather dangerous. When professional hitmen try to take out McGill and everyone else in the home, it’s time for our hero to use that thing he calls a brain and work out what’s happening. The fact he’s suffering a fever and taking antibiotics isn’t helping him think clearly.
Unfortunately, McGill’s wife is also proving difficult as the children start moving out of the nest, his girlfriend wants him back in her life and there’s a new woman who, in other circumstances, would be in his sights. There’s also news of his father. This is emotionally confusing at a time when he’d prefer not to be distracted. In the end, he tethers himself to a tree and waits to see which tigers will come out of the jungle to kill him. Waiting with your eyes open can be the quickest way to solve cases.
This is quite the best of the McGill books to date. The richness of the characters’ lives becomes ever more clear. The family is expanding and the cast of regulars grow more like neighbours every time we open a new contribution to their shared history. All this told with the crystal clarity prose that’s Walter Mosley’s trademark. There are even a couple of genuinely funny moments in all the mayhem to round off another bravura writing performance. All I Did Was Shoot My Man should be compulsory reading for anyone with even a passing interest in contemporary life in New York and the world inhabited by PIs trying to make good.
This was nominated in the Best Novel category in the 2013 Edgar Awards.
The title When the Thrill Is Gone by Walter Mosley, the third Leonid McGill mystery puts me in mind of one of my favourite blues guitarists, B B King. In terms of technique, his vibrato style of playing has never been matched (for the record, the only two people who had a more idiosyncratic technique were the remarkable Wes Montgomery whose ability to play octaves has never been matched and Django Reinhardt whose ability to play with only two fingers remains miraculous). Anyway, B B King took a blues song from the early 1950s and made it his own. It’s called “The Thrill Is Gone” and it contains the lines, “. . .I’ll still live on but so lonely I’ll be”.
Finding parallels between art forms is always a slight stretch but both Mosley and King share the same method of communicating with their respective audiences. They go for the simple melodic line. There’s nothing flashy or showy. They create the best possible music with the fewest possible words. Whereas other guitarists might wow the audience with riffs and arpeggio progressions at the edge of their techniques, a King solo has you humming along with elegant variations on the theme. Similarly, Mosley writes in simple, uncluttered sentences. Whereas other authors may produce complex sentence structures using extravagant vocabulary, he’s out to capture to rhythms of ordinary speech both as dialogue and for telling the story.
Anyway, the lyrics of “The Thrill Is Gone” capture the essence of McGill’s current predicament. He’s always been something of a loner. Personally, I blame an absentee father who wasn’t around to stand as a role model when it was most needed. This produced a man who rubs along with most he meets. Indeed, even when roused to anger, he still manages a certain level of politeness in his language even if not always in the level of violence. This is not to deny he has real friendships and can be ferociously loyal, but it takes something special in a person to penetrate his defences. He remains with his wife out of habit, i.e. the family kind of expect him to hang around with the teens playing the usual game, affecting a magnificent indifference that signals they probably care what their adoptive father does. His real love, Aura, is maintaining her distance. She saw what can happen to her man when one of his cases goes pear-shaped and finds herself indecisive. She would like to make the commitment but doesn’t know how she would react if, the next day, she received a telephone call saying he’d been shot and killed.
So McGill is between relationships and short of money when a client walks into the office and offers him a goodly sum of cash to warn off her husband who may be thinking about adding her to a list of murder victims. McGill, of course, is sceptical but, needing the money to pay the rent, he decides to dig a little and then call on the man. To add another complication, Harris Vartan appears and, as a favour, asks him to track down an old associate. Reluctantly, this gets added to the list of things to do and then we’re off and running. This is the usual mystery puzzle with two sisters and a brother in trouble. Naturally, our hero is soon teasing at the threads, aiming to unravel the knots and produce clarity. As is the way in this type of book, not everyone survives, but the body count is kept to a minimum and there’s a satisfying outcome for the people most at risk.
The secondary search for Vartan’s old friend also proves highly illuminating with McGill forced to reevaluate his view of the world and Vartan’s role in it. Some of the secondary characters also emerge in rather better condition than they started out and, if McGill has his way, he may well have found another to join him in the detective business.
As always with Walter Mosley, When the Thrill Is Gone is a beautifully smooth piece of prose delivering a top-notch story. I acknowledge a growing pleasure in watching McGill at work. As a character, he’s a fascinating creation and, rather like Socrates Fortlow, I rather wish I could meet him in the real world, hoping to stay on his good side, of course.
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.
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. There are also two Easy Rawlins novels, Blonde Faith and Little Green.