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Jack Strong by Walter Mosley

June 24, 2014 11 comments

Jack Strong by Walter Mosley

Like most people, I have many faults. Some are minor, others neutral in their effect on me and my life. Among the latter is my somewhat obsessional approach to reading. If I find an author who hits the spot, I try to read all his or her work. Numbered in this select band is Walter Mosley whose work I’ve been reading for the last twenty years. Although I confess to finding some of his science fiction and more metaphorical fiction didactic and less interesting, I have persevered. Which brings me to Jack Strong (Open Road Media, 2014) This boasts the subtitle: A story of life after life. This is novella length and obviously intended as the first two chapters of a novel, which is slightly unfortunate, because unlike a formally constructed short story/novelette which reaches a natural conclusion, this stops rather arbitrarily as our titular protagonist leaves the nest of his awakening and sets off on his quest.

Walter Mosley as seen by David Burnett

Walter Mosley as seen by David Burnett

We’re back in the land populated by one of the fairly standard SFnal ideas. This time, we’re following along the track developed by Lois McMaster Bujold in Mirror Dance where a man not only develops multiple personalities, but gets some degree of control over which personality shall take the wheel, given the needs of the particular circumstances. Our protagonist, Jack Strong, seems to be in the same situation as Donovan in the series of Spiral Arm novels by Michael Flynn in that the multiple personalities have been induced artificially. In the first pages of this ebook, Jack dreams scenes from the lives of many people.

When he wakes, he finds himself in a fairly anonymous hotel room. When he comes down to reception, he discovers his room has been paid in advance and that his car is parked outside. As he slowly comes to full consciousness, he begins to realise he has access to the memories and abilities of many people. These are real people but they seem to be dead, i.e. we’re blurring the genre line with fantasy and supernatural elements. They represent a cross section of the community including individuals from both ends of the spectrum of good and evil. One might be a serial killer who moved around the country hitch-hiking. Another might have been a priest of rare knowledge and high spiritual morality. In between comes the mass of humanity. Some faceless and only possessing minor skills and abilities. Others were highly trained as soldiers or gamblers, grifters and criminals. In other words, Jack has a wealth of experience and abilities to call on but, if this is a democracy, getting many of these personalities to agree on any particular course of action is challenging.

The first personality to begin influencing Jack’s actions turns out to be on the hit-list of some local gangsters. Because this fact is not immediately obvious to Jack, he inadvertently finds himself in extreme danger and has to go on from there. Fortunately, he has another personality who was in the FBI and is able to make contact with a real-world person who can help out. So, for the length of this relatively short extract, we’re in fairly well-travelled territory as our hero who finds himself in the body of a crook has to extricate himself and find somewhere safe to hide. While this is playing out, he also becomes aware of a man monitoring his actions. Presumably, as the novel progresses, we will see this as representing the essential mystery to solve. Who has performed this “scientific marvel” by collecting all these people together in one body? What is their purpose? and so on. As it stands, it’s pushing all the right buttons and ends frustratingly as he leaves Las Vegas for points unknown. Hopefully, the rest of the book will be completed soon and we’ll all be able to see whether the idea develops coherently and finishes satisfactorily. So far, so good, i.e. I recommend it as vintage Mosley and, hopefully, he’ll keep away from his tendency to didacticism and stay with the action plotting.

For reviews of other books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Blonde Faith
The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin
Known To Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
Merge and Disciple
When the Thrill Is Gone

Little Green by Walter Mosley

Little Green by Walter Mosley

A while ago, an author tired of a series character and decided to kill him off. Being of a flamboyant disposition, our jaded Arthur Conan Doyle threw Sherlock Holmes off the Reichenbach Falls. This caused shock and horror in the reading community and, given the upswelling of anger and resentment, Doyle finally relented and brought the hero back to life. It was as if the man had never been away. Sherlock strode back into Watson’s life as fit as the proverbial fiddle. With Easy Rawlins, a character created by Walter Mosley, the brush with death was rather more serious. At the end of Blonde Faith, Easy is drunk behind the wheel of his Pontiac. The sense of despair had been building throughout the book and he finally acts on it by driving off a cliff. Six years later in our time, he’s back in Little Green (Doubleday, 2013), the twelfth outing, except only two months have passed since his suicide attempt failed. Raymond Alexander aka Mouse searched the cliff on a tipoff from beyond, courtesy of Mama Jo. Under his guidance, Easy has been nursed back to consciousness. That was the body repair more or less complete. That still left the soul labouring in the shadow of death. In one of his infrequent moments of consciousness, Mouse asks Easy to look for Evander Noon aka Little Green. When Easy wakes up properly two days later, he remembers the request and, defying everyone, he rises from his bed and hits the streets in search of this young man who decided to visit with the hippies on Sunset Strip and hasn’t been seen since.

Walter Mosley pleased to be back with Easy on the streets of LA

Walter Mosley pleased to be back with Easy on the streets of LA

From this you’ll understand we’ve moved on to 1968 in Los Angeles but, in the real world on the streets, little has changed for the black man. That Easy happens to carry a PI badge only vaguely changes his status from a mere “nigger” in the eyes of white police officers to that rare bird, a “nigger” with a badge. This lack of change is somewhat ironic given the rise of the hippy counterculture. If ever there was going to be something to unite older people of different races, it was the emergence of this drug-fueled, free love generation. But Easy’s progress from death to some semblance of life represents a triumph of sorts. The fact he’s been in a coma for two months has not changed his situation. Yet when he sees what he would have lost, it does give him a reason for wanting to hang around for a little bit longer. We all have a burden of guilt to carry around. That he hurt his family and friends by his suicide attempt adds to that burden and forces him to seek a form of redemption in both his own and their eyes.

Which brings us to Evander. He’s had the worst possible experience with LSD. It took him out of his usual relationship with the world and tipped him into a very unfortunate place in which he briefly surfaced during his trip to find himself surrounded by bags of money covered in blood. Not really aware of his actions, he gathered up this money and hid it. Except, he finds it very difficult to remember what he did with it which is unfortunate when bad men start asking him. When Easy rescues him and Mama Jo patches him up, the time has finally come to do some serious remembering. That way, when the bad men continue their search for the money, Easy and Mouse will have the right answers for them. As with all the books by Walter Mosley, this plot just rolls off the page like a well-oiled machine, each step in the journey advancing us closer to the resolution of the problems, and illuminating our lives with insights into the lot of the African Americans in the Los Angeles of the 1960s. It was a tough time but, with the community pulling together, most manage to get through life with no more than a scratch or two. That’s not to say people don’t get beaten or shot. No matter what the historical period, there will always be a few dead bodies by the time the book is finished. The trick pulled off by Easy and Mouse is that they protect the people closest to them, plus those they take under their wing on a temporary basis. Except when you’re saving people, there’s no such thing as temporary. These people owe debts of gratitude and offer deep roots of support within the community if criminals or outsiders represent a threat. There’s strength in numbers so that even the police walk carefully if the crowds look threatening.

All of which confirms my immense satisfaction in seeing the return of Easy Rawlins. These slick PI investigations set in Watts give us the relatively rare opportunity to look at the African American experience in a recent historical context. These books speak with great authenticity and insight. Although it’s been good to spend time with Leonid McGill, it’s better to get back to the familiar Easy Rawlins. He’s the man I would want on my side if the going got tough. Little Green is Walter Mosley doing what he does best.

For reviews of other books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Blonde Faith
The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin
Jack Strong
Known To Evil
The Long Fall
Merge and Disciple
When the Thrill Is Gone

Merge and Disciple by Walter Mosley

November 21, 2012 1 comment

The allegory is one of the most difficult of all literary forms to write. When an author writes in factual terms, we have well-established tools to use in judgement of the quality of the narrative. We can decide whether the facts resemble real-world experiences, whether the behaviour shown would be expected of real people in comparable situations. Credibility is a hard task-master, but if what you write purports to capture truth, then it’s a fair yardstick. But what if your text is intended as an extended metaphor? Suddenly all tests seeking to measure truth are redundant. What the author intends as the allegorical message is not mentioned in the literal meaning of the words used to form the text. The intended meaning is hidden in the silences between the words or lines of words. This makes the text enigmatic. In a simile, we’re given a pointer because we’re told what the meaning is “like”. Metaphors lack such a signpost to guide us. We’re forced to intuit or infer the meaning using our intelligence and, in a sense, that’s where the problems start. If the meaning is pathetically obvious, we curl our lips in contempt. We may even suggest we’re being patronised if something has been so dumbed down. Move to the other end of the scale and many will scratch their heads in confusion or even anger that the meaning is so obscure. We bitch the author has failed to make the message clear. We rant that perhaps the author has no message and is simply hiding his lack of inspiration behind the obscurity.

So here we come with two more contributions to the Crosstown to Oblivion series (Tor, 2012) by Walter Mosley. The first is called Merge. An African American who’s not very bright is sitting quietly reading a self-improvement set of lectures when he suddenly becomes aware his world has been invaded. Sorry, that’s both literally and metaphorically true. In the sense of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, a being has come to Earth. Perhaps, fortunately, the intention is not to replace the human as in the novel, but as a trailblazer hoping to merge with humanity. In the metaphorical sense, our human hero has almost completely withdrawn from the world. He has lost his two real friends and the girl who slept with him has gone off with another man. He then won millions on lotto and could passively insulate himself from other people. So when this odd thing appears in his room, he’s not so much frightened as puzzled. His space is invaded but he doesn’t feel threatened. When it asks for food, he offers it fruit which it happily absorbs. So begins a gentle mutual exploration.

Walter Mosley without the usual blue backlighting

The question, of course, is what meaning we’re to draw from this man’s ultimate decision to merge with the alien. We could look back at the history of slavery and wonder whether the modern African American is still subservient, yet the reality of the merger is an equal partnership between the species. This is not a return to the yoke as such, but there’s an amazing quality of humility and forbearance on display. He endures torture at the hands of angry white Americans. Even the Islamic warriors held beside him in Guantanamo Bay sympathise with him. To that extent, this stereotypes the whites as aggressive in the defence of what they perceive as their own interests. By this, they sacrifice their chance of access to the benefits of the merger. I suppose we could be playing “the meek shall inherit the Earth” game, but this lacks the more general trappings of a Christian allegory. Or we could have an immigration debate story. An African American citizen “marries” an illegal alien except, because he becomes an alien (in part), he’s one of the people the GOP thinks should self-deport. That’s why the military inquisitors chop bits off him in Guantanamo. Indeed, when you look at which human groups actually go through the merger process, almost all of them are marginalised outsiders. These are the people who see little or no future for themselves in the current America and are hoping for something better when they merge. It’s ironic because if America was a better place with a fairer society, everyone might feel like merging or no-one would (in the latter case, everyone would perish). In many ways, Merge could be read as quite an anti-American novella taking aim at some of the worst aspects of current society. Or it may be signalling the possibility of some hope for the downtrodden if they embrace opportunities for change. Given all this, I remain undecided what the intended message is. However, this does prove to be one of the more interesting allegories, managing to maintain a good pace and developing a good set of variations on the theme. No matter what it’s supposed to mean, I found it enjoyable all the way to my arrival at the end.

Disciple, on the other hand, is less successful. From my stance as an atheist with only limited knowledge of the detail of Christian beliefs, I take it to be a kind of parable, loosely based on Abrahamic traditions. An alien contacts one of life’s losers and, after offering proof of an ability to see into the future, persuades the man to become its servant. At an early stage, the alien uses our “hero” as an instrument of death. For his obedience, he is rewarded with wealth and as much freedom as he can create for himself. The only problem is the guilt. He takes responsibility for being the immediate cause of a few dying so that many can be saved. It’s an application of utilitarianism and Mosley invites us to consider what degree of responsibility should fall on the shoulders of the “innocent” agent. The man had no idea what effect would result from following a simple set of instructions, yet he was the direct cause of transmitting an infectious disease. Because he infected a high level politician, it was detected far earlier than would otherwise have been the case. His actions saved millions of people.

Once the disciple understands his role, he can never be innocent again. He knows that following the instructions given to him by the alien could be the cause of more deaths. So now he has a choice. Does he abandon the alien? Does he follow instructions to take Isaac to Moriah? Will he actually sacrifice the animal trapped in the bushes? That’s why this is not strictly Abrahamic. In this case, our hero is not substituting a ram. He’s substituting a smaller for a larger number of people. Either way, people die. It’s simply a question of how many.

I’m inclined to give this pair of novellas the benefit of the doubt. They avoid some of the preachiness that has blighted earlier efforts in this direction. Merge is clearly better than Disciple but both are interesting and, in these superficial times, you can’t ask for more than that.

For reviews of other books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Blonde Faith
The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin
Jack Strong
Known To Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
When the Thrill Is Gone

The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin by Walter Mosley

June 27, 2012 1 comment

Once again, I’m obliged to remind the readers of these reviews that I’m an atheist. This disclosure will allow you an opportunity to judge the fairness of the opinions offered. It’s a curious coincidence that I should just have seen the film titled Prometheus, and then pick up this latest offering from Walter Mosley. The book is the first in a series of twinned novellas to form a series titled Crosstown to Oblivion. These are The Beginnings of the End making up Fragments of Six Shattered Worlds. The first two stories are titled The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin (Tor, 2012) and are presented in tête-bêche form. This is somewhat unusual from a mainstream publishing house in hardback. For once, it’s good to see Tor-Forge following Subterranean Press in promoting this different format for novellas.

 

Although I’m a major fan of Walter Mosley, having read all but a few of the titles to date, I wish he would stay away from these literary forays into science fiction or fantasy, depending on how you classify these books. He’s unbeatable when he deals with strong men surviving on the mean streets of whichever city he picks. Even the slightly nonstandard efforts like The Man in the Basement manage to overcome their tendency to pretentious preachiness and produce an interesting insight into race relations or whatever the theme he’s chosen for the particular book. But when we come to books like Blue Light, it’s as if he forgets the need to keep his creativity and imagination working along the mainstream tracks. This is a blurring of the borders between metaphor, fable and science fiction. Blue radiance falling as if the tears from God creates sixteen new beings who dispute whether life or death should prevail.

 

The Gift of Fire treads the same path except, this time, Prometheus gets tired of the eagle snacking on his liver and crosses over into modern LA where he uplifts a long-term drunk close to death and then sacrifices his mortal existence for a early teenage boy who’s been paralysed and confined to bed for most of his life. This parallels the fate of Lester Foote in Blue Light. Lester is a black man who played the white man’s game and climbed the PhD ladder. Except when he got to the top, he found he still commanded no respect. This provoked him into a suicide attempt and then his redemption as an acolyte of one of the Blues. In The Gift of Fire, Nosome Blane has fallen to the bottom of the heap, but Prometheus endows him with a blue essence that converts him into a disciple. Chief Reddy becomes the prophet to bring the second fire down to Earth. Unfortunately, before Prometheus has worked out the local conditions, he also empowers Luther Unty who becomes the embodiment of evil. In every equation, there must be balance.

 

Although this novella is more pantheistic than explicitly Christian, Walter Mosley is intent on advocating that we aspire to build a kind of spiritual community in which all differences are swept aside in achieving a oneness. The overall problem with this is the tendency for the author to launch into sermons filled with rather abstract ideas of how we should live our lives. This is not to say the underlying story is without power. It actually demonstrates how a single messianic figure can become a threat to the security of the state and trigger an aggressive response in self-defence. But, to be honest, the conscious parallelism with the story of Jesus, even down to Chief Reddy’s death and resurrection, is not what I feel is appropriate in a story which starts off in the myth of Prometheus, followed by the classical Gods re-emerging and interfering in Earth’s politics. Either you run this in a semi-realistic way to show Prometheus wrestling with the problem of how to transmit the new message to the Earth as he now finds it, all the while fending off the Olympian Gods who want to chain him back to the rock, or you have some unspecified force lift up a disabled young man and make him into a prophet who may later be acknowledged as the Messiah. Conflating the two mythologies produces a singularly unsatisfying outcome.

Is Walter Mosley a great writer? The ayes have it!

 

The second novella is called On the Head of a Pin — a reference to the limit on the number of angels you can balance in a single place. There’s no direct connection between the two stories except this is more explicitly a science fiction story about a scientific development that unexpectedly links into a dimension where the spirits or souls of all life, past and future, can be observed and, in one special case, more directly connected. Yet the theme is the same. This time Joshua, our principal protagonist, is a man who has fallen emotionally. His stable relationship disintegrates and, by chance, he’s recruited to document the development of this device. As is required, he’s an African American and the victim of racial discrimination by Pinkus, a coworker. When the project reaches the testing stage, Joshua is one of two people to be able to interact with the device. In due course, he contacts Thalla, an advanced form of artificial human in the future, and they become soul mates. She tells him what will happen in the future and begins to teach him how to use this unexpected technological breakthrough. The other man able to get a response from the device is, as you would expect, the bigoted Pinkus who conjures up visions of violent sexual abuse. We then get into the familiar debate about whether this device should be turned over to the military for their evaluation and possible exploitation. The resolution of this militarisation theme is not very original and the point at which the novella stops is the usual holding pattern of Joshua waiting for the real action to begin.

 

Again all this is an excuse for Walter Mosley to push some of his pet ideas on the extent we can take responsibility for our actions. We exclude children from liability for their actions because we deem them incapable of understanding the difference between right and wrong. Yet when we grow in experience and become old enough to be considered adults, we are often not held accountable even though many of the things we say and do can injure others. If you look back at history, it’s also possible to excuse early civilisations for the cruelty they inflicted on others. In terms of moral development, humans were still like children and had not grown enough to take responsibility. Yet, if we apply this across time, at what point would we deem ourselves accountable for what we have become. Through this new device, Joshua can see into the souls of others. No-one can ever lie to him. But knowing whether someone is good or evil is not the same as having the right or power to correct those who fall on the side of evil.

 

Both novellas suffer from the same facile moralism. Walter Mosely is promoting the view that coming together across all divides, the art of compromise no matter how repugnant that may be, is the path to enlightenment. Neither story is successful, whether as no doubt well-intentioned moralising or as science fiction/fantasy. Together they extend the boredom by repetition of the same ideas in a different fictional vehicle. I read Walter Mosley because he has a rare writing talent and I enjoy observing him at work. I just wish he would reserve this talent for what he’s actually very good at which is the thoughtful PI/thriller genre.

 

For other reviews of books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Blonde Faith
Jack Strong
Known To Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
Merge and Disciple
When the Thrill Is Gone

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley

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.

Walter Mosley as seen by David Burnett

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.

For my reviews of other books by Walter Mosley, see:
Blonde Faith
The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin
Jack Strong
Known To Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
Merge and Disciple
When the Thrill Is Gone

This was nominated in the Best Novel category in the 2013 Edgar Awards.

When the Thrill Is Gone by Walter Mosley

November 15, 2011 1 comment

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.

Walter Mosley looking good in a white hat

 

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.

 

For reviews of other books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Blonde Faith
The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin
Jack Strong
Known to Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
Merge and Disciple.

 

Known to Evil by Walter Mosley

July 26, 2010 1 comment

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.

A Dangerous Road by Kris Nelscott

The theme of today’s review is authenticity. Many authors write what they know. This is their comfort zone and it enables them to include levels of insight normally impossible to an outsider. Others are more daring and adopt a point of view as an outsider. In the first, you get an essential truthfulness about the mise-en-scène and credibility in the belief systems driving the choices characters make on what to do or not to do. In the latter, you see the scenes and the characters’ motivations through a more objective eye. In some cases, this may offer a form of commentary on the culture being described. The leaves the question whether authenticity matters.

On some things, I am a genuine expert. So, being born a Geordie, I am able to comment with authority on the portrayal of my homeland in films like Get Carter and, more recently, The One and Only. We shall pass rapidly over the general failure of filmmakers to reproduce the accent. Their standard justification is that meaning would be denied to even to English, let alone foreign, audiences without the use of subtitles. In reality, the problem is that the “stars” imported to sell the films are incapable of adopting a credible accent and their efforts would probably add an unintended comic element to the whole — something not necessarily desirable in Get Carter, Purely Belter, et al. Does it matter that films do not accurately portray local accents or, indeed, the real local culture? In some senses, the answer is always “no”.

Art always strives to achieve some level of universality and, if you root your work too strongly in one culture, it may deny others the chance to empathise. Thus, when you go to see Shakespeare, you do not hear the Elizabethan English of his time, but modern accents and, often, find the action in contemporary settings. Indeed, where would we be with Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and the many other film and stage versions of Shakespeare that have transplanted the spirit of his work into forms more immediately accessible to modern audiences.

All of which brings me to A Dangerous Road by Kris Nelscott. This is a not-quite private-eye story in the tradition of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels. That means an African-American hero with a military background who makes his living by doing odd jobs, usually investigation based. Unlike Easy, Smokey Dalton is well-educated, but they both have a knack for solving mysteries. Unlike Easy, Smokey Dalton is demotivated and alienated but, as the pressure mounts, they both get things done. When it comes to the politics of race, Mosley captures the social anger of the times and the self-control necessary to survive the inevitable interaction with local law-enforcement officers in particular and white folk in general. I take his voice to be authentic. Nelscott is a pseudonym (as most people interested in mystery novels will know). I read this book because I had enjoyed her science fiction and was interested to explore her other writing. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has no direct experience as a man of colour living through times of racial tension in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet this is the substance of the first of what has proved a successful series of Smokey Dalton novels.

Let us start with the quality of the mystery to be solved. The core of the problem is obvious from the initial pages, but the detail of the resolution only becomes possible towards the end of the book when Smokey makes a road trip. I confess I did not predict the correct solution. I was in the mood to read it through to the end in one sitting and did not stop to give it thought. As a “twist”, it fits into the context, but it’s a bit “ordinary” when measured against comparable novels. The intended focus of interest lies in the novelisation of the final days leading up to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Since we all know he was assassinated, the only tension in this narrative lies in mapping out the territory often occupied by conspiracy theorists intent upon involving the FBI and the local police in the shooting. Sadly, I was mildly underwhelmed by this. There is also a subplot involving an interracial relationship between Smokey and his client, Laura Hathaway. In the heat of the moment and given all Smokey’s emotional baggage, I found this element to be the most credible. It’s an emotional tragedy for both characters, but probably what would have happened. I take this element to be authentic.

Put all this together and you have quite an interesting read. It has Rusch’s trademark prose — refreshingly simple and involving. If it had been put in support of a narrative more intrinsically exciting to a Geordie, I would have been really impressed. Perhaps, to Americans interested in their own history, such novels are inherently exciting. I am therefore uncertain whether to continue acquiring and reading the other Smokey Dalton novels. In contrast, I am a Walter Mosley completist, having read all his novels including the science fiction (one of which is dire). His voice does speak to me as a Geordie who lived through the immediate post-war period in a Northern, bomb-devastated British city.

For my other reviews of books by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, see:
Boneyards
City of Ruins
A Dangerous Road (writing as Kris Nelscott)
Diving into the Wreck
Duplicate Effort
Recovering Apollo 8

The Long Fall by Walter Mosley

July 15, 2009 1 comment

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. Finally, there’s a new ebook, Jack Strong.

Blonde Faith by Walter Mosley

June 30, 2009 1 comment

There’s this advert on the TV — can’t remember offhand whether it’s for a cream or a razor — where this sexy lady has wiped or shaved all those annoying hairs off her legs and now wants to test the “stubble” factor. So she takes this piece of silk, hangs it over an angled limb and watches it with an enigmatic smile as it slips silently off. Her leg generates no friction to slow the casting of this May clout (as in “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out” — an English proverb that only a word geek like me still remembers).

Which is a silly way of introducing the subject of transparent writing styles. Some people have the knack of writing such simple and seductive English that, almost despite yourself, you are picked up and transported to the end of the book without having to pause for breath. It’s the sign of a true craftsman at work. Walter Mosley has this breathtaking ability. In Blonde Faith, the tenth in the Easy Rawlins series, we are back on the streets of LA in a direct sequel to Cinnamon Kiss. Easy is still in an emotional mess over the departure of Bonnie. Here, as in many other ways, Mosley takes a well-worn cliché and makes it credible. There are ten-to-the-dozen novels where a man loses the woman he loves because he won’t open his mouth and speak honestly about this feelings. Here again we have two people who were made for each other but who find themselves trapped by circumstance and waves of conflicting emotions. But the interior monologue in this case is outstanding.

The “case” comes to his door in the form of Easter Dawn, the adopted daughter of Christmas Black and a request from EttaMae to find Mouse. At first, these disparate responsibilities seem unwelcome yet, as the novel progresses, Easy begins to find emotional distance to see himself and his problems more clearly. They help him to break out of the morass of self-pity in which he had been wallowing, and to ask himself who he is and what he wants out of life. This becomes more pressing as the bad guys threaten Easy and his growing family circle more directly. This time, he doesn’t have Mouse as immediate back-up.

In fact, the interest lies in how dangerous Easy proves to be. Whereas Christmas and Mouse would charge directly into battle with guns blazing, showing no fear, Easy must rise to the challenge of vicious killers on the prowl on his own merits. Since he lacks the bravado of his two friends, he must find more subtle ways of dealing out death. In the end, he saves everyone except, perhaps, himself.

Since I find no fault with this book, I merely encourage everyone who has not already found Mosley to find him immediately (preferably at the beginning of the various series). I do not recommend anyone to start with this book. The emotional resonance will be lacking if you do not see how the characters and narrative arc have developed to reach this point. If you are already a fan, I need say no more than you will not be disappointed by the novel. Hopefully, Mosley can be persuaded to write more of them.

For reviews of other books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin
Jack Strong
Known to Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
Merge and Disciple
When the Thrill Is Gone.

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