Walter Mosley writes detective novels that carry forward that indispensable tradition to fit the present times, his latest three novels starring his new knight-errant, the fifty-something New York P.I. Leonid McGill.
The masterful Mosley, part African American and part Jewish, has as his ingredients Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett; action comic books and strips, their atmospherics and character types, especially villains, such as found in Batman, Superman and Dick Tracy (http://www.internationalhero.co.uk/d/diktracy.htm [see especially the drawing of Tracy in action with a handgun and try to remember some of the perverse criminals pursued by Tracy in that fabled series (e.g., do you remember “The Brow”?)]); twentieth century avant art (“stylized chaos,” Mosley’s brilliantly poetic capturing of its artistic essence and which influences the literary art in his own novels) such as that of Paul Klee and especially Roy Lichtenstein in his elevation of images in classic American pop comics to high art of our time and culture, especially the famous painting of a woman, OOOH… ALRIGHT…, a latter day Mona Lisa (http://www.google.com/images?client=safari&rls=en-us&q=roy+lichtenstein&oe=UTF-8&um=1&ie=UTF-8&source=univ&sa=X&ei=x0uETfPFMIz6sAPTovz3AQ&ved=0CDYQsAQ); boxing (Rocky Marciano instructs in the right cross “in boxing heaven or wherever”); the Melting Pot now at a boil; interracial romance; an uneasy take on Capitalism (together with an eschewing of Communism) as a system based on corruption, power and influence still more liberated and liberating than the politico-economic alternatives; jazz; black rage (you can almost see the dialog clouds “Pow!” and “Bam!” from the old comics as ex-boxer McGill schools gang-bangers and street punks and mobsters in subways, on mean streets and in offices); and soul food and stubborn-old-male food (fried pork chops, collards, spiced rice, 45-day-aged rib eye steaks with their bones in place, lattes, Wild Turkey as a wash-down-steak-dinner drink) in the out-of-the-way diners and eateries in New York known to the connoisseur’s of such unhealthy delights.
Here still, of course, nothing is ever as it seems. Everyone ever lies, even innocently and indeed naturally in the deepest sense, a practice Mosley posits to be at the heart of the ways of Old Homo sapiens, an adaptive/survivalist behavior one just expects, especially if one is a “good P.I.” The challenge, of course, is to discover the camouflaged underlying motive(s).
Accordingly, despite the title of the third McGill novel, the thrill is never gone for those few sleuths with rare cognitive talent, talent grown from an obsession. These few sleuths alone are able to reach truths, especially conspiratorial, predatory ones. Leonid McGill is hired by suspect clients as one of the best of these skilled detectives.
Yes, in large the whole system in Leonid’s world works by corruption. The P.I., said in the classic noir stories, e.g., Marlowe and Spade, to be the latter day questing knight of integrity in a world of secular Fausts and fashionable Nosferatus, most of whom here in America the Beautiful turn out to be billionaires, remains just that in Mosley’s McGill novels. But Mosley breaks Chandler’s rule of almost never revealing any of the past of Marlowe, McGill’s godfather, by presenting McGill as a precariously reformed truth-seeker. He is a tough man who has undergone Conversion from a life of Fixing Things for guilty mobsters and corrupt high officials by evidence-tampering and evidence-planting to a reformed detective who will work for the corrupt all around him but direct his cynical, experienced sleuthing to make certain he brings no further harm to anyone (except the monstrously evil).
Having left behind in LA his signature hero Easy Rawlins (played by Denzil Washington in the fine Hollywood adaptation of one Rawlins novel, Devil in a Blue Dress [featuring Don Cheadle as the humorous, deadly, “sociopathic” assassin (the quotation marks because Mosley is no mere reductionist behavioral analyst), Mouse Alexander, in one of the finest pieces of acting I’ve seen–a performance you simply must take in if you haven’t]), New Yorker Leonid McGill labors under the sins of his father, Tolstoy McGill, a Communist who deserted McGill and his mother [whereupon she killed herself] when McGill was a youngster and McGill ended up in a succession of unhappy foster homes. But nevertheless, Tolstoy-the-father managed, as do most fathers, to leave some indelible, helpful commandments about McGill truthfully sizing up himself and others as well as leaving him with a Russian first name. Apropos: Leonid personifies Mosley’s updated noir in The Long Fall, Known to Evil and When the Thrill is Gone.
It’s primarily Mosley’s wonderful, controlled, masterful writing in his dramatization of a dangerous world that brings a durable, imperishable storyline of the perennial human problem of Making Sense, a storyline set in the America of the Great Recession and its dismaying degrading of our culture. In Leonid’s world, Making Sense is almost entirely motivated by an empathy for the otherwise undefended innocents all about us. In The Long Fall, hope arises because Mosley advances the idea that in one or another sense you might go into the world, even though you are corrupted, now almost magically reformed in your worthy investigative imperative. Now beyond your impetuous youth, the error of your ways has come to you with some sense of righting wrong or, if you are too cynical for such (and one hopes you are not), at least a wish to redeem some of your past villainy, at a sometimes fearsome price from nightmares of being trapped in burning buildings (the archetypal one for restless McGill) to broken bones to futility.
McGill, once a promising light heavyweight, takes it out on the big bag at his friend Gordo’s gym and runs up the several flights of stairs to his apartment because he needs to keep his wind up in the harrowing events in his pursuit of high corruption behind misleading appearances. Obviously, even in his fifties, he’s no one to trifle with.
And of course and thankfully, the wonderful, always engrossing noir motifs and conventions are there–the opulent domiciles of the wealthy clients, the duplicitous male clients and the lying beautiful women clients, and the Final Resolution turning on the foibles of the super rich. In Mosley’s story world not only can a camel more easily pass through the eye of a needle than can the super rich gain the Greatest Reward, but the most ravaging national and world evil comes from the billionaires (often mad and having logged time at ritzy asylums), the descendants of the millionaires in Chandler’s day. In Mosley it’s the Chandler/Marlowe of The Big Sleep transported to Gotham City and its avant pop art from the Sixties.
Mosley/McGill, knowing Chandler chapter and verse, visits in The Long Fall a mansion in which graceful circular stairs rise six stories from the foyer and there is an enormous floral display on a massive table near the front doors displaying a “rain forest” which must have been done by a “genius” of a florist and above which a spectacular yellow parrot is allowed to fly around that circular deluxe six story atrium, a maid pursuing the parrot to wipe up its droppings, and the parrot’s freedom insisted upon by the most beautiful woman McGill has ever seen, a Brahmin in her sixties but transfixing who grinds her nails into McGill’s hand when she takes it and who is quite mad yet conniving. In an otherwise gray novel here we have a splendid burst of color as the jungle world we came from and still live in materializes. To go any further I’ll spoil the story.
Mosley and Evgeny Morozov would, I feel sure, get along well when it comes to the digerati. If there has been “The Lost Generation,” “The Silent Generation,” “The Sixties Generation,” “The Greatest Generation,” “Baby Boomers,” “Gen X,” and “The Millennials,” Mosley knows they don’t last. I think he might call the latest one “The Virtual Generation.” This one doesn’t want to distinguish the real from the fantastic. A recurring geek in his three McGill novels dramatizes this multitudinous bunch.
There is too much corruption in the world, says Mosley, to sustain a failure to distinguish the virtual from the real.
Mosley seems a lifesaver when it comes to navigating these times. When your spirits are tired, seeing a prevalence of the old lessons could not be more satisfying.