Walter Mosley's novels about black characters are attracting attention

MYSTERY LOVES COMPANY

October 19, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

"Well, look at this," Walter Mosley said as he was handed a first-edition copy of his debut crime novel, "Devil in a Blue Dress." "You know, I've heard in Los Angeles that signed first editions of this book go for $250-$260 now."

Mr. Mosley smiled as he returned the book to James French, a crime laboratory supervisor for the Baltimore City Police, who carefully placed the book and signed copies of Mr. Mosley's other two novels in a bag. "Don't worry," Mr. French assured the writer. "I'm hanging on to these ones."

Mr. Mosley beamed again and then bent over to sign another of his books. "Is that 'Caroline' spelled C-A-R-O-L-I-N-E?" he asked another fan. "Got to get the name right. You can be writing, 'To Tom, with best wishes,' and the guy will say, 'Hey, that's Thom with an "h" in it' -- as if you're supposed to know."

For Mr. Mosley, yesterday was one of those pleasant paybacks for a writer. Along with two other mystery writers, Sarah Shankman and Dallas Murphy -- all three are under contract with Pocket Books -- he was at a book-signing at Mystery Loves Company, the book shop in Fells Point that specializes in whodunits. The words of praise were warm, and the attention obviously was welcome to Mr. Mosley. And why not?

He was a computer programmer for many years after getting out of college in the mid-'70s, but the good money was not enough. So he took a writing course at City University of New York in the late 1980s and began working on a story about two friends in a black neighborhood of Los Angeles, his hometown. When it didn't sell, he decided to turn the story into a crime novel.

Now, with three crime novels out in three years, Walter Mosley vTC couldn't be doing much better. "Devil in a Blue Dress," which came out in 1990, when he was 38, was nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award, and Mr. Mosley has just finished writing the screenplay for the movie -- with Denzel Washington expressing an interest in playing Easy Rawlins, the street-smart main character. Reviewers have praised his vivid characterization of post-war black Los Angeles; one wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Mosley is a new, strong and original voice, here to stay and not to be missed."

One person who has not missed the Easy Rawlins books is

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who recently read all three of them and pronounced them to his liking. "Sure, I'm happy about it," said Mr. Mosley, 40, who has lived in New York the past 10 years. "The big problem that black people have with the Democratic Party is that we have always voted Democratic, but the Democrats haven't done much for us. . . . The fact that he is reading books by a black person on black people is encouraging to me."

Walter Mosley is well aware he is unusual in the mystery-writing field. He is black, and he writes about a black world -- Los Angeles after World War II, when men and women from the South came to California in search of a better life. Easy is an unlikely protagonist; in "Devil in a Blue Dress," he reluctantly agrees to do some detective work because he was laid off and can't pay his mortgage.

Easy moves easily among the hipsters and murderers that frequent the taverns and pool halls of South Central Los Angeles, and he knows well the working people who work to near-exhaustion during the week, celebrate Saturday night with an enthusiasm bordering on desperation, then are renewed at church the next day. "But Sunday was a time to feel good and look good," Mr. Mosley wrote in his second book, "Red Death.

"In the beginning, almost my whole audience was white," Mr. Mosley said in an interview before the book-signing. "But black readers are interested in seeing a whole history that has been ignored by most literature. I'm writing about a time in Los Angeles that you would think a thousand people would be writing about. But hardly anybody has."

"There's no question that his books are more realistic about the people he writes about," said Ed Green, a colleague of Mr. French's, who is black. "You gotta have some close ties to the subject matter, and he does."

Mr. Green and Mr. Mosley chatted for several minutes after the author signed one copy each of "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Red Death" and "White Butterfly," which was published a few months ago by W.W. Norton. A gregarious and friendly type, Mr. Mosley wanted to know if Mr. Green might lend his expertise to a future book. "I'd hate doing research in books," the author said as he put Mr. Green's card in his pocket. "I'd much rather have a source."

He sees himself writing several more Easy Rawlins novels -- the ** next one will be called "Black Betty" and will be set in the early 1960s, just before the riots in Watts. He's also working on another book -- this one about an old bluesman living in New York. "I needed to take a break from Easy," Mr. Mosley said.

One aim of his books, he said, "is to show the diversity of black people. You know, a lot of times, when we're reading about black people -- whether it's by black or white authors -- there's a certain stereotype. But, for instance, Easy has trouble with women, but he loves children. And you don't usually have black men portrayed like that, committed to children and living with children. You read more about men who abandon children -- that's supposed to be a black trait.

"Or the [black] women are supposed to be very strong, powerful entities. Well, many of them are, but not all. There are women who are weak or befuddled or confused or mean or whatever. I want to talk about all these kinds of people."

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