are taking a hard-boiled look at race
By Malcolm Jones
Newsweek, June 24, 2003 issue
In his forthcoming novel, "Bad Boy Brawly Brown,"
Walter Mosley sends his hero Easy Rawlins in search of a
young African-American man who's joined up with the Urban
Revolutionary Party in mid-'60s Los Angeles.
But just when Easy finds the young man at a party meeting,
the cops barge in. "A police raid meant nothing to
me," Easy says. "I'd been in whorehouses, speak-easies,
barber shops and alley crap games when the police came down.
Sometimes I got away and sometimes I lied about my name.
There was nothing spectacular about being rousted for being
It takes only a few pages for Mosley to capture the anger
and violence of the '60s, and he does it from the point
of view of an African-American man who wants no part of
radicalism and even less to do with the white power structure
that throws the police at the slightest sign of unrest.
The remarkable thing about this scene, though, is that it
takes place not in some ambitious social novel about racial
violence but in a detective story.
And these days that sort of social realism is not that uncommon.
Novels with a social conscience, or novels that picked at
the warp and woof of the way people lived, were once a high-protein
staple of the American literary diet—think Sinclair Lewis,
John Steinbeck or John Dos Passos. But then social realism
fell from favor in literary circles.
Remember Philip Roth's famous quote in the early '60s that
fiction could no longer keep pace with reality? These days,
with a few exceptions—Richard Price, Colson Whitehead—mystery
writers have social realism almost all to themselves. Or
as crime writer Dennis Lehane puts it succinctly, "Today's
social novel is the crime novel." Lehane backs that
claim up with a half-dozen mysteries ("Prayers for
Rain," "Mystic River") about life high and
low in Boston, and so can writers like Mosley, James Lee
Burke, George P. Pelecanos, James Sallis and Paula L. Woods.
Today's crime writers, black and white alike, are tackling
the volatile subject of race with a daring conspicuously
lacking in mainstream fiction. Because race is almost never
the main event in their stories, these writers don't look
at racial issues as problems to resolve. They look at them
as clues about how society works, or doesn't work. The result
is often some of the freshest reporting being done on America.
Even law professor Stephen Carter, who got mixed reviews
for his eagerly anticipated debut novel, "The Emperor
of Ocean Park," drew praise for his portrait of upper-middle-class
African-American society-in the middle of a mystery novel.
Mosley kick-started the trend in 1990 with "Devil in
a Blue Dress," the first of six Easy Rawlins mysteries
in which he's charted the history of black life in Los Angeles
from the '40s to the '60s. With several decades left to
go in the saga, it is already a rare and unexpected literary
achievement. "When people like my books, they say I
transcended the genre," Mosley says with the air of
a man who's gotten away with something. "A broad audience
gives the mystery writer a chance to address social issues
like race, not just preach to the converted."
In the best of these books, there's no preaching at all,
just a poker-faced description of the problem. Sometimes
that's even more unsettling. Paula L. Woods's two novels
about Charlotte Justice chart the efforts of a black female
struggling to make it in the white, male world of the Los
Angeles Police Department. No happy ending is guaranteed.
"She is trying to assimilate into a police force that
she may not be able to assimilate into," Woods says.
The most fascinating parts of Woods's stories deal with
the internal contradictions in African-American culture,
starting with the question of skin color. "I learned
from my mother's experiences that life in America was a
game called Pigmentocracy, color a card you played,"
Charlotte says in "Inner City Blues." "So
if my 'high yellow' color lulled my white superiors in the
Department into thinking I was somehow safer and less militant
than my darker sisters and brothers, then that was their
mistake, not mine."
Woods expected some criticism for such passages. Instead,
"I get an amazed response from whites," she says,
"and a nod from blacks. Almost everyone is grateful."
Almost everyone is right. George P. Pelecanos says he's
had people walk out of readings when he so much as mentions
issues like gun control in a story.
But Pelecanos is more aggressive about issues than most
crime writers. In novels like "Right as Rain"
and "Hell to Pay," his characters, both black
and white, constantly pick at each other's assumptions about
race. And Pelecanos never lets anybody, the reader included,
off the hook. His questions about racial differences and
prejudice implicate us all.
"There's this assumption some people have," Pelecanos
says, "that deep down we're all alike. Well, we're
not." Capitalizing on that fact, this growing cadre
of American mystery writers has left Colonel Mustard and
his candlestick back in the library, preferring instead
to simply stare the real world in the face. As Mosley says,
"We have the responsibility to talk about the world—not
teach, just talk about the world we live in—the insoluble
(c) 2003 Newsweek, Inc.