Walter Mosley Gives New Meaning to the Term "Noir Fiction"

By , Contributor

Writing about Walter Mosley is very frustrating. The problem is that you can’t give your reader a sense for how good he is in just a few sentences. You keep wanting to insert about five pages or so…or ten…or 20… and say, “Here, read this! Isn’t this great stuff?” Okay, one sentence, from When the Thrill Is Gone, from Mosley’s new series featuring New York private investigator Leonid McGill. (Leonid’s father, Tolstoy McGill, considered himself a revolutionary, and named his son after Leonid Brezhnev. Mosley loves attention-getting names.)

So here's the sentence: "Though they had taken different paths to their damnations, both men had one overarching philosophy in common: they saw all men’s deeds as acts of fate and therefore were never plagued by guilt or remorse."

Leonid’s best friend is dying of cancer, his wife is having an affair with a teenager, and he talks like this? Saying that this is detective fiction is like saying that Michael Jordan was a basketball player. Actually, though, the word is out on Mosley; Time magazine described him as “a writer whose work transcends category and qualifies as serious literature.”

Mosley will be 60 next year, and although he shows no signs of slowing down (thank goodness!), he can look back on a lifetime of achievement. Born in Watts, he used the area as the setting for the Easy Rawlins books, which were set in the '30s and '40s. The last of these, Devil in a Blue Dress, was made into a terrific, wonderfully atmospheric movie starring Denzel Washington. Denzel has never looked better.

Whatever serious literature is in America, it has often grown out of popular literature, and this is certainly the case with When the Thrill is Gone. (Mosley often uses musical references in his titles.) It begins the way so many great detective stories begin; the affinities with the movie Chinatown are especially striking. The detective is sitting in his office, minding his own business, and an attractive woman comes in. She tells a tale of woe, and hires him. She’s lying, of course (she’s not who she says she is), but before the detective knows it, he’s gotten too involved to back out.

Now that Robert B. Parker is dead, Mosley is the heir apparent to great tradition of Raymond Chandler. Leonid McGill could say, with Philip Marlowe, “I was part of the nastiness now.” Actually, McGill has always been part of the nastiness. He is, by his own admission, a bad man who is (mostly) reformed now. His awareness of his own guilt for past misdeeds, his awareness of his affinities with the assortment of bad guys that he meets, give When the Thrill Is Gone a punch, a visceral quality. When a detective novel lingers in the mind as this book does, you know that you’re in the hands of a master.

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