Back in the 1980s, when New York City was filled with secondhand bookstores, I fell in love with pulp fiction. Reading everything from Dashiell Hammett to Charles Willeford, I devoured those gritty paperbacks and always returned for more. But with the exception of Chester Himes’s wild and wonderful Harlem novels featuring brutal bruisers Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, there were very few books featuring Black detectives written by Black writers.
When I stumbled onto Walter Mosley’s 1990 debut Devil in a Blue Dress (set in the Los Angeles spring of ’48), I knew I had found a new literary friend in protagonist Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. A former country boy who’d spent time in Europe and Africa during World War II, Easy was cool, smart and took no mess. After then President Bill Clinton cited Devil in a Blue Dress as a favorite in 1991, Mosley became a literary sensation. A faithful film version of the book starring Denzel Washington came out in 1995.
Twenty-three years and 11 books later, brother Easy is still doing his thing. Little Green, the latest Mosley novel, is his 12th in a series that just keeps getting better. Writing in a moody, urgent style akin to the work of noir stylists Georges Simmenon and Robert Towne, 60-year-old Mosley has a knack for cooking up a textual gumbo of fresh dialogue, pulp action and existentialist musings while painting a vivid socio-political backdrop of Los Angeles.
“California always seems a few years ahead in terms of what’s going on socially,” Mosley (himself an LA native) says via telephone from his home in Brooklyn. “By 1967, the Watts riots had already happened, the Panthers were there and the hippies were all over the streets.”
In the case of Little Green, the writer takes us behind the scenes of 1967’s so-called Summer of Love, when hippies and flower power were the rage. Yet, in pure hardboiled form, Mosley escorts the readers to the dark side of paradise, where pimps, pushers, psychedelic parasites and petty policemen are aplenty. As Easy once observed about himself, Mosley can find “more trouble in one day than most men come across in a decade.”
Since the beginning of his writing career, the prolific author has expertly paced Easy Rawlins through 23 years of misadventures, love and death.
“Walter helped spawn a generation of authors of color who were interested in writing their own detective novels,” says writer-editor Carol Taylor, author of the erotica novellas Insignificant Others. “He made writing crime fiction from a particular perspective much more accessible to the mainstream.”
Crime novelist Gary Phillips—whose novels Violent Spring and Perdition U.S.A. feature Black detective Ivan Monk—adds, “With the exception of Gar Anthony Haywood, whose 1988 novel Fear of the Dark is about the Black P.I. Aaron Gunner, there were no other writers doing the detective thing. Devil in a Blue Dress caused an explosion when it came to Blacks and private eyes.”
In the most recent Rawlins book Blonde Faith, which also took place in 1967, Mosley attempted to kill off his most popular creation in a drunken automobile accident that sent Easy zooming over the side of a mountain. Distraught over losing the love of his life, Easy’s “accident” was in fact a failed suicide attempt.
Despite the fact that even the writer himself wasn’t sure that Easy would appear in print again, much like the Marvel Comics supermen and pulp heroes (The Shadow, Conan the Barbarian) that Mosley read as a teenager, it’ll take more than death to keep private dick Rawlins down.
“The reason I stopped writing the Easy Rawlins books was because nothing new was occurring to me,” Mosley confesses. “The times were changing, but as far as Easy himself, it wasn’t happening. But five years later, I’m a different man and I think Easy is different too.”
Last year, it was reported in the Hollywood trades that NBC was interested in creating an Easy Rawlins TV series. According to Mosley, “The deal fell through; it just fell apart,” he sighs. “When you’re trying to do a Black show, there is always a delicate balance. And the network became weary, wondering if people would watch.” Even in the era of Scandal? “Well, that’s a very popular show, but NBC never seemed to be sure who the audience was for Easy Rawlins.”
As a writer, delicate balances seems to be Walter Mosley’s specialty, as he swiftly moves between literary fiction (RL’s Dream, The Man in My Basement), plays (The Fall of Heaven), non-fiction (This Year You Write Your Novel), science fiction (Blue Light), erotica and, of course, mysteries.
“I would never be one of those writers who try to deny that they write genre fiction,” Mosley says. “I hate when I’m at a mystery convention and an author says, ‘I don’t write mysteries.’ What are you doing here then? Myself, I’m not denying anything.”
In fact, Mosley recently penned the introduction to Black Pulp, a new collection of genre fiction edited by Gary Phillips and Tommy Hancock, featuring heroes (swashbucklers, World War II pilots, boxers and detectives) of color. The book features new stories by Phillips, Gar Anthony Haywood, Christopher Chambers, Kimberly Richardson and Derrick Ferguson. (Full disclosure: this writer is featured too.)
While most people equate pulp with crime, the aesthetic actually encompasses so much more. “The books today that are considered great literature—writers like Shakespeare, Twain and Dickens—was once popular fiction,” Mosley says. “To me, popular fiction and pulp are very close. These are the stories that define us.”
Fitting right into the debate of literature vs. pulp is Mosley’s spiritual literary godfather, the late great Chester Himes. Beginning his career writing literary novels of the type James Baldwin called “protest fiction” (If He Hollers Let Him Go, Lonely Crusade), Himes later became famous his pulps.
In Little Green, Easy’s friend Jackson explains why he likes Himes’s wonderful Cotton Comes to Harlem over Ralph Ellison’s much more respected Invisible Man: “Ellison made a window that the White man could look inta, but it’s Chester made a door so we had a way out the burnin’ house.”
Snickering at his own line, Mosley says, “To me, Chester Himes is a better writer than Ellison, James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Sentence by sentence, scene by scene, his work is complex and the characters are never what we expect.”
Although some literary critics compare Mosley and Himes, writer and Georgetown University professor Christopher Chambers doesn’t agree. “Himes presented antiheroes and set these people loose in a universe of crafted moods, tastes, smells, violence, saintly sluts and dangerous virgins,” Chambers said. “These antiheroes had one job: put things back in balance, rather than save the world. Walter doesn’t write characters like that. Easy Rawlings often looks like a cork on an ocean wave, bobbing no matter how hard he swims.”
While Mosley occasionally revisits his favorite genre authors, he never reads any of the new crime writing kids on the block. “I can’t really read new mystery fiction, because I’m afraid that the plots will get into my head and begin coming out in my own work.”
Walter Mosley has won numerous prizes for his writings, and in 2001 was awarded a Grammy for his liner notes essay “The Stage of Life,” written for …And It’s Deep Too!, the Richard Pryor box set released by Rhino Records.
“Everything about Pryor was funny and real,” Mosley says. “He was a comic genius committed to changing the world through his art. He was an intelligent thinker, and the only comic who comes close these days is Dave Chappelle.”
Having recently returned to Brooklyn from an eight-city tour promoting Little Green, Mosley is currently working on various movie and TV projects as well as completing his 41st book, Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore—an erotic tale about a Black woman trying to escape the porn industry.
“Unlike some writers, I’ve never felt like Walter wrote to become famous,” says Carol Taylor. “He writes because he has to.” Though obviously prolific, Mosley modestly brushes off any suggestions that he’s special. “I just write what I write,” he says. “And I do it every single day.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He's also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.