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Trouble is his business

Fear of the Dark A Novel Walter Mosley Little, Brown: 312 pp., $25.99

September 24, 2006|Richard Rayner | Richard Rayner is the author of several books, most recently the novel "The Devil's Wind."

"I was expecting one kind of trouble when another came knocking at my door," begins "Fear of the Dark," the third in Walter Mosley's series featuring Paris Minton and Fearless Jones, reminding us again that this author is a genius of the first sentence. The setting is South Los Angeles, the time is 1956, and the trouble is Minton's cousin, Ulysses S. Grant IV. Paris, used-book seller and self-confessed milquetoast, knows from bitter experience that Ulysses, more usually known as Useless, brings trouble "like an infection." So he opens the door a crack but refuses to give him refuge, and from this familial dereliction springs the main line of the plot. First, however, Paris is visited by the problem he'd actually been expecting, Jessa Brown, the skinny young white woman from a "whole slate of Southern states" with whom he's having an affair.

The rough stuff begins soon after, when the front door splinters and Paris is confronted by Jessa's boyfriend, Tony Bobcheck, "the largest white man I had ever seen." Paris escapes and at once goes to Fearless Jones for help, because that's how it is between these two. Fearless, a World War II veteran, does the rough stuff; Paris hides from it. As Paris explains, Fearless doesn't have a bad bone in his body, "but somewhere along the evolutionary trail he had been endowed with a gift for violence.... He never shied away from trouble nor would he turn his back on a friend."

On returning to Paris' store, they find Tony's corpse. Fearless, indeed a useful guy to know, deals with the problem, but Paris faces an even tougher one. His aunt, Three Hearts, Useless' mother, arrives from Louisiana. Three Hearts is a "middle aged woman of normal height and slender frame." She looks stately and even elegant in her dark brown hat, but Paris knows her to be a woman of occult power. She has the evil eye: "People who crossed Three Hearts were bound to come to grief. There was no question about that." And what she wants is for Paris to find her no-good son, on whom, of course, she dotes. Useless, having been turned away by Paris, has vanished, and might even be dead.

This early part of the story, the hook and subsequent twist, is as neat and swift as anything by Lee Child, the current poster-boy of American crime fiction. Mosley, with 20-plus books under his belt, is an old hand by now. He knows how to reel us in, and the first 70 pages or so of "Fear of the Dark" are beautifully done. Thereafter the plot, which hinges on blackmail and a briefcase full of missing money, starts to meander and sag. The mechanics of chase and investigation clearly interest Mosley less than character, atmosphere and locale, or the bringing to life of various shady or honorable figures, the entrepreneurs and con men, the pool rooms, the restaurants, the winos and waitresses that Paris encounters in his trawls through Eisenhower-era Watts.

There are the cops who seem to have wandered in fresh from shaking down Philip Marlowe: "Two fat detectives were waiting in there. One wore a suit that was too green to be a suit and the other wore a suit of spotted gray, though I don't think the spots were intentional." There are the pithy observations that Mosley makes all his own: "They were both white men, but that goes without saying; all detectives were white back then. They were detectives and I was there to be detected."

He has a gorgeous way with sentences: "I might be a coward, but that doesn't prevent me being a fool"; "Books were my radio and my daily drug." And there's even a decent stab at making new that most unavoidable of noir devices, the femme fatale: "She was the woman who was the power behind the king and the widow that survived him." Brilliant.

At this point, narrative-wise, theme-wise, Mosley is doing nothing new; he's revisiting the time and place where he grew up, Los Angeles in the 1950s, territory that he explored with such originality in the early Easy Rawlins adventures. Those books -- "Devil in a Blue Dress," "A Red Death," "White Butterfly" -- are already classics in the genre, and maybe we shouldn't be surprised if this new series doesn't measure up. The tone here is lighter, a little more offbeat, often funny, and that's fine; the problem is that the principals have yet to achieve the living ambiguous fullness of Rawlins and his psycho sidekick Mouse Alexander. Mosley was so good at making Rawlins suffer the consequences of the choices he made, always implicating him in dark ways in the action and making the reader fear for him.

Paris and Fearless, on the other hand, seem invincible, almost cartoonish, like one man split in two for the purpose of the narrative. Among the minor characters, the doleful and implacable Three Hearts is memorable, scary, almost worth a book of her own, and Mosley lingers nicely in the quieter moments, as when Paris enjoys sitting in a desegregated restaurant eating eggplant parmigiana and reading James Joyce.

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