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Paula Woods on Walter Mosley
Reading Walter: An Appreciation of Walter Mosley
By Paula L. Woods

While I’ve never told him this, Walter Mosley has been an inspiration to me for more years and more reasons than he knows. We met over ten years ago at what was then called the American Booksellers Association’s convention. Mistaking me and my husband for booksellers, a W.W. Norton publicist pulled us across the aisle to meet the author and get a signed copy of his latest mystery. Meeting Walter was a pleasant surprise—not just because he was gracious and charming to total strangers, but because I hadn’t heard of a black mystery writer since Chester Himes.

Today Walter’s significance extends far beyond Himes. David L. Ulin, in The Atlantic Monthly, has said that the Easy Rawlins books “compose a sprawling novel of manners about twentieth-century African-American Los Angeles that owes as much to authors like Dickens and Zola as it does to the aesthetics of noir.” While I agree, my own response to the series is more visceral, because that chance meeting, and subsequent devouring of every one of the Easy Rawlins mysteries, made me realize as I never had what a void there had been in my reading life. For throughout the color-coded titles of the series, Walter has created in Easy and his sidekick, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, two of the most fully-realized characters in fiction—intelligent, funny, violent, loving, and heroically flawed in a way I’d never seen black men, or, one could argue, men of any color portrayed. Additionally, Walter evokes a pivotal time and place that has great personal resonance for me—Los Angeles of the 1940s to 1960s, a city traversed by both Walter’s and my own father and a generation of black immigrants who escaped the terrors of the South for what they hoped would be a new Eden in California.

But discovering Walter’s work also caused me to wonder: were there other black writers of crime fiction who were his contemporaries? And what about the writers before Chester Himes—were there any and why hadn’t I heard of them?  The question led me to seek out and collect the text that became the anthology Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes, and to forge lasting relationships with a number of fine writers. I have Walter to thank for that. I also thank him for writing so eloquently and powerfully that I began to think that maybe I, too, had something to say about life and crime in Los Angeles and, by extension, America. I would have never attempted to write fiction if Walter hadn’t preceded me, telling tales and writing truth that transcends race and class.

And those truths are not limited to the mystery genre. Walter is one of those rare people, possessed of a fertile mind and unswerving vision, whose intellect has been applied to the six novels, prequel and short stories that comprise the Easy Rawlins oeuvre; two mysteries in a series featuring Paris Minton and Fearless Jones; two collections of short fiction about ex-con Socrates Fortlow; the literary novels RL’s Dream and the newly-published The Man in My Basement; two science fiction novels; screenplays; and several works of social and political criticism. Taken together, Walter’s body of work has significantly expanded our understanding of the power of writing to change lives.

Such a list of accomplishments would be more than enough for most people. But Walter has also served as president of the Mystery Writers of America and on the board of the National Book Foundation. Among his other contributions that have made the literary landscape richer and more diverse for us all, Walter consciously chose to publish the Easy Rawins prequel, Gone Fishin,’ with an independent black-owned press and has helped to establish a publishing certificate program at City University of New York intended to involve more people of color in the publishing industry.

He has said publicly that his fiction is about black male heroes. As a writer, social critic, and activist, Walter Mosley himself embodies that concept as completely as any of his characters. Recognition of his work and his humanity by Left Coast Crime 2004 is a most richly deserved honor for one of America’s most notable writers.


Web site last updated March 14, 2004.

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