DETROIT Walter Mosley clinches his fingers together and places the tips at a 90-degree angle with the tabletop and absentmindedly runs them back and forth and thinks for a while, then starts talking. I was born and raised around Watts until I was 12 and then we moved away. I remember the riots very well, I rememb He catches himself.
You know, I could just talk. People have asked this question: What do you remember about the Watts riots? And so I will ask you why do you want to know what I remember about Watts?
Why, because Mosley just wrote Little Scarlet, his latest (and best) novel, set in the days just after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. Because the way those buildings smolder, the way the smoke hangs in the air on the opening pages represents the most understated and evocative crime writing in memory. Because the question of whether the riots were a crime at all is just as pungent on those pages. Because you don t get social criticism from just any mystery writer. Because Mosley writes science fiction and screenplays and straightforward serious novels, but in his mysteries, he addresses justice and race in ways that make him more than a mystery novelist.
And yet if labels must be attached, Mosley is without question the most significant mystery writer in decades, the heir to genre legends like Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, and Raymond Chandler.
He has been for a decade now. And there have been other black mystery writers, of course: novelists like Himes, Donald Goines, most recently Stephen Carter (of the best-selling Emperor of Ocean Park). Few (of any color) are as ambitious; indeed, Mosley is just as likely to be compared with a poet of alienation like Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) as with a gumshoe legend like Chandler (Farewell, My Lovely).
When Mosley s great, he s sharper than most of them, more accessible, too; his plots just as tangled, but his sentences stripped of fat until every word feels necessary; his characters as acutely sensitive to what people don t say as to what they say. Because his mysteries have bigger fish to fry than Whodunwhat.
And because, of more immediate importance, Mosley will be reading, signing, and discussing his novels tomorrow at Thackeray s Books in Toledo at 7 p.m.
He considers the Watts question again and plows forward:
"At 13 I was in this acting group called the Afro-American Traveling Actors Association. At the height of the riots we were doing a play on Santa Barbara [Boulevard], now Martin Luther King. We went to the theater and nobody came because they were either rioting, fighting the riots, or hiding from the riots. So we left. We drove down all these streets where rioting was going on. I saw some guy sprawled out on the sidewalk. People looting stores. I saw police four to five to a car, their shotgun barrels sticking through the windows. Places were burning and fire alarms were going off. And that had some impact on me, obviously.
"But the major thing that had an impact on me around that time was my father. One evening during the riots my father was drinking and very unhappy and very upset. I asked what was wrong and he said, 'These riots.'
" 'You afraid?' I asked.
"He said, 'No, I'm not afraid. I want to go out there. I want to shoot. I want to throw Molotov cocktails and burn things down. They're just doing what I feel.'
"I said, 'So, you gonna go?'
"He said, 'No. Because it's wrong to hurt people you don't know. Because I just can't bring myself to burn down my own property. But that does not mean that I don't want to be out there.'
"Anyway, you asked."
Little Scarlet is Mosley's 20th book - and his eighth featuring the Los Angeles working-class hero (and sometime janitor) Easy Rawlins. Work figures heavily in these books, as do the nuances of discrimination. The first time we meet Easy, it's 1948 and he's refusing to put in overtime. He's exhausted. His assembly-line job, humming with defensive-industry contracts, pays well, but when he refuses to go back to work, he's fired; anxious for a $64 mortgage payment, he slides into detective work.
Work figures even today.
On a recent overcast afternoon in downtown Detroit, Mosley moves through the lobby of the Compuware building. Like most authors, even famous ones, he goes unrecognized. But three things about him catch the eye right away: his gap-toothed smile (very Letterman-esque), his huge ribbed gold ring (of a bird pecking at coral), and the straw Panama he always wears.
He's early for a book signing that's been arranged at an awkward time: noon on a weekday. Nevertheless the steady stream of people out on their lunch hour does not let up. A man in a suit approaches and says he gave Mosley a book of his poetry in Harlem, back about 10 years ago - does he remember that?
Mosley stares blankly.
The man shrugs and leans into the table and whispers confidingly, "We are all proud of you." And then raises his voice. "But I have got to get back to work."
Whatever measure of fame Mosley, 52, has with the general public (which the National Endowment of the Arts recently said is reading less than ever before) is because of two things, neither having to do with his appearance on best-seller charts:
No. 1. His first Easy Rawlins novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), was adapted into a movie starring Denzel Washington. The actor approached him for the rights, he says. But he turned him down. Then the screenplay bounced to director Carl Franklin, who wanted Washington.
Then Mosley said OK. "I don't know what that did for my relation with [Washington]," he says. "I always wanted Danny Glover anyway." The film, released the weekend O.J. Simpson was found innocent, quickly stiffed.
No 2. In 1992, while out stumping on his presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was asked what he was reading. One of his favorite writers, he told reporters, was this Walter Mosley guy.
Politicians have juiced the careers of novelists before. Ronald Reagan broke Tom Clancy when he let slip that The Hunt for Red October was a favorite. Decades earlier, Ian Fleming's spy novels made the leap to phenomenon (and later the Hollywood ether) when John F. Kennedy confessed his addiction for James Bond.
"It affects your life," Mosley said. When Clinton became President, he continued touting the author. "The President says you are his favorite writer. Stuff happens. I was on the front page of the New York Times because of that. They did a story. I was on the front page and I wasn't dead. That is no mean feat for a writer. Now I seem to run into him all the time - loved Little Scarlet."
That Bill Clinton, a man so entwined with contemporary history, should put Mosley's Easy Rawlins novels over the top is perversely perfect. These books take the shape of history. "I always planned to write a series of novels about the migration of black people from Texas and Louisiana into Southern California," he said. He did, and then went further: The Easy series, while mysteries by plot, trace the history of Los Angeles' black community from just after World War II to, so far, 1965. He plans to take the story up to 2000. "Easy will be 80, and that is enough."
One of the best things about the series is how Mosley re-creates a place long gone. Then we watch it gradually deteriorate, though not entirely. Mosley's Los Angeles is not any one idea, but changes street to street, block to block. Crowded social clubs in the late '40s grow seedier by the time of Little Scarlet. Crime gets more organized. But politics get more revolutionary and outspoken, too; the best moments of this new novel involve the way peripheral characters, who had never stood up to a white person before the Watts riots, are suddenly saying things that they would have never said out loud:
Four young black men passed in front of the liquor lot. One of them shouted something at the white men.
Manny barked back.
The youths stopped.
The Massman sons stepped forward with their chests out and their mouths full of angry sounds.
It's starting all over again, I thought. Maybe we'll be rioting a whole year. Maybe it won't ever end.
Mosley doesn't see it as history, though. "One day it will be. But history for me is any period where there is nobody alive anymore who witnessed it. That is history. Everything else is just modern. When I was 7, my parents would have friends and uncles come over and they would have conversations about their lives. And that's more alive for me than what was going on in those streets - because, hey, I never hung out in those streets."
And that influence is on every page. His father (who died in 1993) was from Louisiana and the chief custodian for the L.A. school system. His mother, in her 80s and still working, was white and Jewish, her relatives communists. Mosley didn't start writing until his early 30s. He was a computer programmer. The way he puts it, writing came out of nowhere. "I decided I was a writer and I was. It's not much of a story, I guess. One day I was bored as a computer programmer. I stopped and typed: 'On hot sticky days in southern Louisiana, the fire ants swarm.' Just like that. I looked at it and thought: 'Sounds like a novel.' "
Mosley stares down his nose, his glasses resting at the tip. "Well, that's an interesting notion." The conversation has come around to the simple act of writing, how hard it is to write, how easy it is to hate what you write. Mosley doesn't understand. He does it every day, he says. (What he doesn't say, but what he's said in the past, is that he often writes in the nude.) "But sometimes I don't make it. I wrote today, 5 o'clock in the morning at the airport waiting for my flight. I may write something that doesn't work. But why should I hate it? It's a step to something that's going to work eventually."
Mosley loves anecdotes. They're his biggest influence.
"Look, I met this guy at a party once. Guy said to me, 'You go to a party, you hit on women, right, that's what you do.' How he sees it, the first woman you ask doesn't want to go out with you. She says 'No.' You ask 15 more, and they say the same. But there's always No. 16. Sooner or later someone will say 'Yes.'
"And of course, the guy's right. He told me, 'Man, I had to ask all those women to find No. 16.' And there's no feeling of rejection.
"Writing is like that for me. Sometimes the writing is bad. Doesn't bother me. Sometimes a story doesn't make sense. Doesn't bother me, either. I keep writing. It's like a story about Jack Dempsey. The fight is over but Dempsey's shaking. 'I'll do better. Don't fire me.' He's scared and anxious. He's pleading with his trainers, pleading, until they stop him - 'Jack, man, you won.' "
Novelist Walter Mosley will do a book reading, followed by an open discussion, tomorrow night at 7 at Thackeray's Books, 3301 W. Central Ave., in the Westgate Village Shopping Center. Information: 419-537-9259.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6117.