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AUTHORS: The people behind the books we read.

Transcending the Genre

Walter Mosley is famous for his mysteries set in black Los Angeles in the '40s through '60s, but make no mistake: His achievements go beyond popular fiction.

November 24, 1999|LYNELL GEORGE | Times Staff Writer

Mosley's novels serve a multifold purpose. They fill in the blanks: Those lost chapters for and about African Americans--particularly black Angelenos--who have too seldom found their stories recorded formally on a page. But it isn't simply the physical landscape--the sad long-boarded-up facades, the dusty beer-hall jukeboxes--that reverberates so. Rather, it's reconnecting with that long-lost emotional landscape that can only be reignited with a nudge to the memory.

"When I first started writing, I thought I was going to write a series of histories--not history histories," he clarifies, "but mapping the migration of black people from southern Texas to Louisiana to L.A. Starting with 'Gone Fishin,' which nobody would publish. Then I wrote 'Devil in a Blue Dress' [W.W. Norton, 1990]--then it was: 'Yeah, right, we'll buy two books and they have to be about the same guy and they have to be blah, blah blah' . . . and I went 'Ah . . . Oh . . . OK, I like money,' " he cracks wise. "You gonna pay me for that, right?"

And then some.

A Hero Who Makes Lasting Friends

Easy Rawlins took off. Critically as well as popularly. Four other titles followed. The works translated into 21 languages. And the Clinton plug didn't hurt either. Then there was the '97 screen adaptation of "Devil in a Blue Dress," starring Denzel Washington. (There is a TV series in the works as well.) Before Mosley knew it, his success with Easy plugged him into the mystery genre--for better or for . . .

"Remember? . . ." Mosley cuts off the line of conversation, his eyes flashing fierce but a smile winking at the corners of his mouth. "Remember? We're not talking about Easy."

"You brought him up," he's reminded.

"Yes, that was my fault," he concedes with a shrug.

Easy, you see, is tailing Mosley, ever gaining on him.

And even at Mosley's recent Southland reading at Vroman's in Pasadena, you'd think Easy himself was going to stride in and take his place behind the lectern; the room was abuzz with "I miss Easy" and "I want him to come back."

Truth be told, it's not so much the specter of Easy that is problematic for the writer but what he represents: the self-isolated world of the noir gumshoe--and all the romance and expectations that come with it.

Even Raymond Chandler, the noted hard-boiled L.A. prose laureate, struggled with being hemmed in by the form, says Robert F. Moss, who maintains a Raymond Chandler Web site. "By the early 1950s, many British critics were praising Chandler as an important American novelist, while in the United States he was still suffering from the stigma of being a common 'genre writer' and, therefore, not worthy of serious critical attention."

And like Chandler, says Cal State Long Beach professor David Fine, author of the upcoming "Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction," Mosley is less interested in crime than in rendering the urban environment in a symbolic way. "Mosley's books are what you call cultural novels. They are complex--with plot and character development. He is a cultural mediator between white and black worlds--Watts and greater L.A. He's not really a genre writer but, rather, an L.A writer."

An L.A. writer seeking to create works as expansive and complex as the region he most often chronicles.

For a man who believes in movement, action, Mosley is feeling the press: Can something that is popular also be seen as "literary" and thus judged as important?

"Whenever anything is popular or popularized, whether it's good or not, it's up for questioning," he says. "People will talk about my writing. People read my books. They buy them. And that," he says with a shrug, "is a strike against me. It takes awhile for popular fiction to enter into the literary area. But the greatest writers in English are popular writers. William Shakespeare, the most revered writer in English, was a complete popular writer . . . who wrote for the masses."

Addressing Themes That Are Universal

Being squeezed into this ever-narrowing intellectual space as a genre writer doesn't do justice to what Mosley has already accomplished with his work in a larger realm. Much like his character Socrates, who assembles a casual round table made up of his friends and neighbors to discuss issues affecting their present and future--from race to sex to the very property of hate and rage--Mosley has been endeavoring to discuss similar themes in his novels.

But for Mosley, uncovering solutions to society's problems, or at the very least talking about them, stretches beyond the realm of fiction. Already he has tried one nonfiction exploration: "Black Genius" (Norton, 1999) assembled 13 black thinkers, from writer-activist Angela Davis and writer Stanley Crouch to activist Randall Robinson and film director Melvin van Peebles, to offer varying perspectives on what it might take to create a more self-sufficient, self-determined future for black Americans.

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