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AUTHORS & IDEAS

Walter Mosley looks east

In his latest novel, Walter Mosley turns from Southern California, long the domain of Easy Rawlins, to New York City

March 24, 2009|Josh Getlin

reporting from new york

He's got an elusive black mistress and a bored Swedish wife who doesn't love him. He's raising three kids, only one of whom is his. A low-level mobster wants him to kill someone, and the men he's tracking for a shadowy detective are being murdered one by one. ? Leonid McGill, the protagonist of Walter Mosley's new mystery, "The Long Fall," is a harried, middle-aged African American. He's nothing like Easy Rawlins, the Los Angeles private eye who made Mosley one of America's most respected writers. ? But it's not just a stage of life that separates the two characters: It's the stage itself. In "The Long Fall," the author has shifted the action from post-World War II Southern California to New York, where he lives. ? It's an intriguing change for Mosley, who was born in L.A. and has long been identified with the city's diffuse landscape. ? As he sipped a glass of iced tea at Soho House, a private club in New York's meatpacking district, he said the idea for the new novel, the first in a projected series, had more to do with his own restlessness than any sense that the Rawlins saga had run its course.

Mosley's Easy Rawlins books may have featured a black character, but they had clear crossover appeal. Six of the mysteries, beginning with his first installment, "Devil in a Blue Dress," made national bestseller lists.

"A lot of the stories and the sense of place in the Rawlins books come from a time and place that was my father's," Mosley said, referring to the late LeRoy Mosley, who grew up in Texas and Louisiana, fought in World War II and then moved to Los Angeles along with many other blacks.

"That series was an hommage to my father, his people and my family. But these new books that I've just started writing are very much about me."

Changing lives

Mosley said he wanted to explore the complicated lives many middle-aged men find themselves living. Like McGill, he is in his 50s. "At some point, men's lives start to become like women's. They're juggling a whole bunch of things and there are no easy answers. They wonder what all of the daily struggles amount to."

Mosley was born in 1952 in South Los Angeles and grew up in an interracial home. (His mother was white and Jewish.) In the 1960s, the family moved to the Pico-Fairfax area, where Mosley attended Hamilton High before fleeing Los Angeles for the East Coast.

He's been living in New York now for 30 years -- currently in Brooklyn -- so it's not as if he doesn't know the place. "The Long Fall" offers him a chance to expand on the themes of race and modern American society that have run through his earlier books.

"New York," he said, "is so raw and deep, and nobody really understands it. The city becomes its own character, along with everyone else in the book. It's a very different scene."

Rawlins' world was fairly easy to explain: Although he knew how to survive in white society, he spent most of his time in black neighborhoods. But McGill, a former prizefighter who still spars in the ring, finds new opportunities -- and barriers -- in New York.

"The subway is a good example," Mosley said. "When you get on a downtown train, you have the great New York experience of everybody jammed together in one space, no matter who they are. You've got all classes, blacks and whites together. That doesn't happen elsewhere."

McGill exemplifies such a dynamic: He got his first name from a father who had been a die-hard communist. Short and overweight, he's a brooding, deceptively powerful man who dishes out brutal beatings to his enemies.

He moves through high society but doesn't put on airs. This is a guy who drinks black coffee from a paper cup every morning and devours a fried egg sandwich with melted cheese and chopped raw onions at the local Greek diner.

In a revealing opening scene, McGill tries to speak personally with a black financial advisor in a swank Midtown office but is rebuffed by his snooty white assistant. Her contempt for the scruffy, middle-aged investigator is clear -- but it's based on class, not race.

"I was obviously out of my depth," McGill thinks. "It wasn't my skin color that bothered her. People on Madison Avenue didn't mind dark skins in 2008. This woman might have considered voting for Obama, if she voted. She might have flirted with a rap star at some chic nightclub that only served imported champagne and caviar. No, [she] didn't like me because of my big calloused hands and no-frills suit. She didn't like me because I was two inches shorter and forty pounds heavier than a man should be."

As "The Long Fall" unfolds, McGill passes rapidly from one world to the next, climbing the ladder from gritty, blue-collar bars to the highest levels of New York wealth and power.

Much of the story focuses on his battle to shed the personal demons of a morally ambivalent past. He's trying to reinvent himself in his 50s, never an easy task. What makes the novel fascinating is that it infuses this midlife crisis with an overlay of big-city racism.

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