Walter Mosley’s best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, though he’s also written literary fiction, science fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, “sexistentialist” fiction and regularly contributes to the Nation. Since 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress (Norton), his first novel, he’s written 31 more books and been published by a lot of outfits, and now, for his latest act, he’s got a new publisher—Penguin’s wunderkind imprint, Riverhead. Riverhead’s coup, the Leonid McGill series, is hard-boiled, set in New York and very good.
The move to Riverhead began when editor Sean McDonald asked Mosley to blurb Junot Diaz’s NBCC Award- and Pulitzer-winner, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. “I started to pay attention to Riverhead and thought, they know what they’re doing, they’re really on top of things in a way that’s hard to do in the modern world,” Mosley says. “And also they deal with writers who are most similar to me.”
Mosley asked his agent to approach Riverhead, and a three-book deal was done in December 2007. Two of those are installments to the Leonid McGill series: The Long Fall and Known to Evil, which he’s just finished and will publish in spring 2010. “It’s the best experience I’ve ever had with a publisher,” Mosley says.
The series features Leonid McGill, a New York ex-boxer turned private eye who debuted in the 2006 short story “Karma.” Leonid’s got some baggage: a black guy with a white wife he doesn’t like; three kids, two of which aren’t his; a Communist father who abandoned him as an adolescent; a mother who died shortly thereafter; and the intention to now “go from crooked to slightly bent.”
“With his history, you can see why he’s tough,” he says. “You’re not just a good boxer if you have the talent. To be a good boxer, what’s behind you has to be worse than what’s in front of you. That’s Leonid. His history is worse than anything he’ll go through.”
Leonid rumbles through some seedy corners of New York. He’s friends with a shut-in computer genius and a “commercial serial killer,” and has done enough deals with shady characters in his crooked past to make going straight a tricky and dangerous proposition. Some of the big issues he confronts—race, class, injustice, opportunities and lack thereof—carry over from the Easy Rawlins series, but, as Mosley points out, it’s “not the same thing.”
“What I’m trying to do is write a book about the world I’m living in,” he says. “I’m trying to write a book about the New York that I see, with all of its complexities and all of its issues. Easy Rawlins, he just can’t go there. There’s a black president. Come on, now.”
There’s also a global financial meltdown that has an impact on Leonid in an unconventional way: his wife had left him for a hedge-funder, who lost his shirt when everything went south. Then she came back, and Leonid let her stay. So even this tough guy’s got a heart. (And a woman on the side, but that’s another matter.) And while he’s not a Ward Cleaver, he loves his kids, most of all his son, Twill, a high school student and smooth operator.
“He’s my favorite character I’ve ever written. He’s a really good man, and at the same time he’s a natural-born criminal,” Mosley says. “In the book, he’s decided to kill somebody, but Leonid can’t find anything wrong with the decision, other than the fact that the kid is willing to do it. Most other people are not willing to act on what they know is right.”
Mosley said he’s enjoying writing the new series and thinks it’s “a step forward for me in the genre and also in a literary sense.” With two books done, he’s got an arc planned that’ll carry through for another eight. Again, shades of Easy Rawlins, who had a 10-book run (11 if you count prequel Gone Fishin’) and who Mosley insists is dead.
“There’s 3,000 first-person pages on Easy Rawlins,” he says. “Honestly, there’s nothing else to say. It’d be going over it again and again and again, but it would be the same stuff. He’d get older, but you kind of pin him down from age 19 to like 46 or 47 in Blonde Faith [the last Easy Rawlins novel]. You know who he is.”
The Long Fall clocks in at 320 pages. So, another 2,700 to go. If history is any indication, Mosley’s one of the few who can pull it off.