Jan. 12, 1952–
Los Angeles, CA
Shamus Award, Private Eye Writers of America, and Edgar Award nomination, best new mystery, Mystery Writers of America, both 1990, both for Devil in a Blue Dress; Grammy Award, best album liner notes, for Richard Pryor . . . And It's Deep, Too!: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968–1992), 2002; Hammett Prize nominee, North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers, 2003, for Bad Boy Brawly Brown; John Creasey Memorial Award for outstanding mystery writing; TransAfrica International Literary Prize.
"A good private–eye novel . . . is not really about violence; it's about the fallibility of people, about the grotesqueries of modern life, and not least it is about one man, the detective, who defines the moral order." This statement, from Washington Post reviewer Arthur Krystal, captures the essence of Walter Mosley's widely praised detective stories. Mosley's novels include a series of hard–boiled detective tales featuring Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, who reluctantly gets drawn into investigations that lead him through the tough streets of black Los Angeles. There Easy operates in a kind of gray area, where moral and ethical certainties are hard to decipher. "The Rawlins novels . . . are most remarkable for the ways they transform our expectations of the hard–boiled mystery, taking familiar territory — the gritty urban landscape of post–World War II Los Angeles — and turning it inside out," wrote David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "Mosley's L.A. is not that of Raymond Chandler, where tycoons and hoodlums cross paths on gambling boats anchored off the Santa Monica coast. Rather, it is a sprawl of black neighborhoods largely hidden from the history books, a shadow community within the larger city, where a unique, street–smart justice prevails."
Mosley was born in southeastern Los Angeles in 1952 and grew up in Watts and the Pico–Fairfax district. His father was an African American from the Deep South, and his mother a white woman of Jewish descent whose family emigrated from Eastern Europe. This unique African American/Jewish heritage made prejudice a major topic in the household. An only child, Mosley grew up hearing about the woes of life for African Americans in the South as well as the horrors of anti–Semitism across the Atlantic. However, he was also regaled by colorful accounts of partying and carrying on among his African–American relatives, along with tales of czars in old Russia.
After earning a bachelor's degree at Johnson State College in 1977, Mosley drifted for a number of years in various jobs. He and Joy Kellman, a dancer and choreographer, moved to New York City in 1982 and were married in 1987. The parents of Kellman, who is white and Jewish, reportedly did not speak to their daughter for five years after meeting Mosley.
Mosley settled down into a career as a computer programmer in the 1980s, but his work left him unfulfilled. Meanwhile, he read voraciously, including mysteries by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross MacDonald, and existential novels such as The Stranger by Albert Camus. This blend of suspense and philosophy served him well in the mysteries he would later write.
According to a profile in People, Mosley's decision to become a writer was strongly influenced by his reading of The Color Purple by Alice Walker. That book rekindled the youthful urge to write that he had long since lost. He began writing feverishly whenever he could find time. Intent on devoting himself totally to his craft, Mosley quit his computer programming job in the mid–eighties and enrolled at the City College of New York. One day, as he told D. J. R. Bruckner of The New York Times, "I wrote out a sentence about people on a back porch in Louisiana. I don't know where it came from. I liked it. It spoke to me." From that moment, he defined himself as a writer and fulfilled the dream of many would–be authors bound to an office: he quit to devote his full attention to his craft. He continues to write the way he began: "First there is a sentence. Then characters start coming in."
In 1990, readers first met Mosley's Easy Rawlins — and his short–tempered sidekick, Mouse — in Devil in a Blue Dress. The novel is set in 1948, when many black World War II veterans, like Easy, found jobs in the area's booming aircraft industry. When Easy loses his job, he grows concerned about the source of his next mortgage payment — until he is introduced to a wealthy white man who offers him a way to make some quick cash: he will pay Easy one hundred dollars to locate a beautiful blonde woman named Daphne Monet, who is known to frequent jazz clubs in the area. Easy takes the job but soon realizes that the task is far more dangerous than he imagined.
Many characters in the Easy Rawlins novels are based on the experiences of Mosley's father, with similarities between LeRoy Mosley and Easy Rawlins especially apparent. After being treated like a hero abroad during World War II, LeRoy Mosley was dismayed to find that he was still a second–class citizen back in the United States. This disillusionment was also felt by veteran Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress. However, the war made it clear to Rawlins that the white man was not much different from himself. Early in the novel, the character ruminates: "I had spent five years with white men, and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself. I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue–eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was."
Mosley has also tapped his African American/Jewish perspective to deal with Jewish suffering as perceived by African Americans. In Devil in a Blue Dress, two Jewish liquor store owners in the ghetto cause Easy Rawlins to remember when his unit broke open the gates of a Nazi extermination camp. This recollection leads to an understanding of similarities in the oppression suffered by African Americans in America and Jews abroad. The novel was nominated for an Edgar Award for best first novel by the Mystery Writers of America in 1990.
Mosley followed Devil in a Blue Dress with A Red Death, set five years later. In the sequel, Easy has used stolen money to buy a couple of apartment buildings and is enjoying the life of a property owner. But he gets into a jam with the Internal Revenue Service, and his only way out is to cooperate with the FBI by spying on a union organizer suspected of being a communist. Again, he gets mired in complications as he tries to make sense out of a dark underworld of extortion and murder.
Mosley's third novel, White Butterfly, fast–forwards to 1956. Easy is married and has a new baby, and his businesses are going well. When three young black "good–time girls" — are brutally slain, the crimes are barely reported. But when a white student at the University of California, Los Angeles, meets a similar death, the serial killings finally make headlines. In the meantime Easy is hired by the police to help investigate. His inquiries take him through bars, rib joints and flophouses until he makes the startling discovery that the latest victim, the daughter of a city official, was a stripper, known by her fans as the "White Butterfly." In fact, nothing in the novel is as it appears, but Easy sorts through the corruption and deception to solve the mystery — at a terrible price to his personal life.
Observer correspondent Nicci Gerrard commented, "In Mosley's fictional world, there's no such thing as innocence. There's hope (which Mosley calls naiveté), and anger (which Mosley calls sense). There's law (white law), cops (the real criminals) and justice (which exists only in a heaven he doesn't believe in). There's love (which he calls heartache), and trying (failure), and then, of course, there's trouble."
By the time Mosley's next Rawlins novel, Black Betty, was published in 1994, the author had earned an important endorsement. President Bill Clinton let it be known that Mosley was one of his favorite writers and the Rawlins books among his favorite reading. Not surprisingly, Black Betty sold 100,000 copies in hardcover and helped to earn Mosley a multi–book contract for further novels in the series. As the action in Black Betty commences, Easy is well into mid–life and the 1960s are in full swing. Once again in need of extra money — this time to help support two street children he has taken in — Rawlins agrees to search for a woman he knew back in Houston named Black Betty. The story, to quote Chicago Tribune Books reviewer Paul Levine, "is a tale of mendacity and violence told with style and flair from the perspective of the black experience — or rather Mosley's unique version of it." Levine called the book "a sizzling addition to the color–coded series" and added that the author "captures a time and place with dead–on perfect detail and evocative language." Barry Gifford, writing in The New York Times Book Review, remarked that "nobody will ever accuse Walter Mosley of lacking heart. . . . His words prowl around the page before they pounce, knocking you not so much upside the head as around the body, where you feel them the longest."
Mosley left his popular detective behind temporarily in 1996 to publish his first non–genre novel, R. L.'s Dream. Set in New York City in the late 1980s, the novel explores an unconventional friendship struck in hard times and offers meditations on blues music, especially the unparalleled work of Robert "R. L." Johnson. The story unfolds when Atwater "Soupspoon" Wise, dying of cancer and evicted from his skid row apartment for nonpayment of rent, is taken in by a young white neighbor named Kiki Waters, who has troubles of her own. According to Ulin, R. L.'s Dream "is less about life in the modern city than about the interplay between past and present, the way memory and reality intersect. Thus, although Soupspoon and Kiki may share living quarters and a certain fundamental bond, both are essentially lost in their own heads, trying to come to terms with personal history in whatever way they can."
R. L.'s Dream found many fans among critics. Entertainment Weekly contributor Tom De Haven called the book a "beautiful little masterpiece, and one probably best read while listening, very late at night, to Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings." In the San Francisco Review of Books, Paula L. Woods dubbed the novel "a mesmerizing and redemptive tale of friendship, love, and forgiveness . . . without doubt, the author's finest achievement to date, a rich literary gumbo with blues–tinged rhythms that make it a joy to read and a book to remember." Digby Diehl of Playboy noted that Mosley's mystery novels "don't prepare you for the emotional force of R. L.'s Dream. Mosley mixes the nightmares of Soup's past with the immediate anguish of poverty, chemotherapy, and aging. The result is harsh, uplifting, and unforgettable." A Publishers Weekly correspondent observed that in R. L.'s Dream Mosley's prose "achieves a constant level of dark poetry" and concluded that the book is "a deeply moving creation of two extraordinary people who achieve a powerful humanity where it would seem almost impossible it should exist."
Mosley's successful novels incorporate narrative skills that he reportedly learned from his father and from other relatives who, like Easy, moved to Los Angeles in the years following World War II and who passed the time by telling stories. As a result of this oral heritage, Mosley presents "a black world of slang and code words that haven't been delivered with such authority since Chester Himes created his Harlem detective stories," in the opinion of Herbert Mitgang in The New York Times. Commenting on Mosley's strength as a writer, Tribune Books reviewer Gary Dretzka surmised that the author demonstrates "his ability to tell an interesting period story in an entertaining and suspenseful manner and to create dead–on believable characters whose mouths are filled with snappy dialogue." Clarence Petersen of the Chicago Tribune praised "the rhythm of his prose" and the "startling originality of his imagery," presented with an "unselfconscious ease."
Beyond capturing both the music and the nuances of his characters' language, Mosley uses his stories to explore issues of race and class. Some observers have found this exploration too limited; in an essay for African American Review, Roger A. Berger contended that detective fiction is "a (white–male) genre rather inimical to a progressive struggle for racial justice, equality, and freedom" and that "Mosley cannot fully disentangle himself from the reactionary politics that are embedded in the genre." A different view was put forth by Digby Diehl, who commented of Mosley's work in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "The insightful scenes of black life . . . provide a sort of social history that doesn't exist in other detective fiction." The critic added, "He re–creates the era convincingly, with all of its racial tensions, evoking the uneasy combination of freedom and disillusion in the post–war black community."
Mosley, who has said he visualizes about nine books in the Rawlins series, returned to the character in A Little Yellow Dog and Gone Fishin' but introduced a new protagonist in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned: The Socrates Fortlow Stories. Fortlow, after spending twenty–seven years in an Indiana prison for rape and murder, is now a free man living in the largely black Watts section of Los Angeles and trying to lead a moral life. Tough yet philosophical and compassionate, he offers help to a variety of friends and acquaintances — a troubled youth, a cancer patient, an injured dog — and forges relationships with neighbors working for the betterment of their community. The interconnected short stories in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned form a "not–quite novel," in the words of a Publishers Weekly critic, who found the volume's best feature to be "its indelible vision of 'poor men living on the edge of mayhem.'" Library Journal contributor Lawrence Rungren thought the book occasionally "a bit contrived or didactic" but added that the main character's appeal makes up for these faults. A People reviewer also liked Fortlow but deemed the book so "thin on plot and action" that not even such a strong protagonist could make it succeed; the reviewer called Fortlow "a character in search of a novel." Booklist commentator Bill Ott, however, lauded Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned as "hard–hitting, unrelenting, poignant short fiction" and remarked that Fortlow, unlike Rawlins, "is a fantasy–free hero." What's more, asserted Sven Birkerts in the New York Times Book Review, "Mosley's style suits his subject perfectly. The prose is sandpapery, the sentence rhythms often rough and jabbing. But then — sudden surprise — we come upon moments of undefended lyricism. This, too, belongs to the character portrait."
Fortlow takes center stage again in Walkin' the Dog, which also takes the form of related short stories. This book finds the ex–con somewhat materially better off than in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned but still dealing with moral questions; at one point he launches a protest against police brutality. Some reviewers noted that Mosley manages to avoid the problems sometimes associated with "message" fiction by showing Fortlow's activism as arising naturally from his character. New York Times Book Review contributor Adam Goodheart remarked that Mosley sometimes veers into sentimentalism, but added, "More often, though, he lets his characters make their own mistakes, and narrates their rough lives in a gentle voice." Goodheart further observed that "like his Athenian namesake, Socrates Fortlow is a streetwise philosopher, always prodding skeptically at others' certainties, offering more questions than answers." The book's concern with social issues also brought its main character comparisons with Tom Joad, hero of John Steinbeck's Depression–era saga The Grapes of Wrath. "There is a Steinbeck–esque edge to Fortlow's musings on black vs. white and rich vs. poor, and he displays shades of Tom Joad, another convicted killer who desires a better world," commented Michael Rogers in Library Journal. Again, Mosley received plaudits for his overall delineation of Fortlow, termed "a uniquely admirable and always unexpected personality" by a Publishers Weekly critic, who further praised Walkin' the Dog for its "artfully chosen, dead–accurate dialogue."
Mosley ventured into another genre, science fiction, in Blue Light. The novel's action takes place in 1965, when numerous people in the San Francisco Bay area are struck by strange rays of blue light that endow them with superhuman powers. These people, dubbed "blues," are then called upon to fight a force of pure evil. The leading character is a man of mixed racial heritage — as is Mosley — but along the way, racial distinctions blur, as do gender, class, and other differences.
A Publishers Weekly critic found Blue Light "plain misguided," with the concept not fully realized and the narrative at times confusing. In Booklist, Ray Olson asserted that "Mosley should leave this kind of thing to Dean Koontz and take it easy — Easy Rawlins, that is." But Library Journal reviewer Michael Rogers, while acknowledging that Blue Light represents a departure that might put off Mosley's regular readers, pronounced it "a beautifully written, deeply spiritual novel."
Mosley has occasionally produced nonfiction, serving as coeditor of Black Genius: African–American Solutions to African–American Problems, in which black intellectuals discuss various social ills, and writing a critique of capitalism in Workin' on the Chain Gang: Contemplating Our Chains at the End of the Millennium. In this book, he challenges the American people to find imaginative and creative solutions to the political, social, racial, and economic problems within society. Among other things, he urges his readers to turn away from rampant consumerism and consumption, and cautions against overexposure to mass media. Mosley encourages readers to learn from the lessons and struggles of the African–American experience, and envision a brighter future. In Booklist, Mary Carroll noted that "free market fanatics will hate this book" but believed that readers who are "receptive to a progressive critique of the religion of the market will value Mosley's creative contribution."
Mosley published Bad Boy Brawly Brown, another Easy Rawlins novel, in 2002. Easy is called upon to locate Brawly, who has apparently joined a violent revolutionary group. Critics once again praised his use of the novel to examine the racial politics of America. "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," reviewer Malcolm Jones wrote in Newsweek. "The remarkable thing about this scene, though, is that it takes place not in some ambitious social novel about radical violence but in a detective story." Troy Patterson in Entertainment Weekly concluded: "While most mystery writers churn out series, Mosley's issuing a serialized epic, crafting what promises to be a shelf–length work nimbly clueing through unexplored shadows of American noir."
Fear Itself, published in 2003, features the character Paris Minton, a black bookstore owner in 1950s Los Angeles, and his best friend, ex–war hero Fearless Jones, first introduced in 2001's Fearless Jones. The quiet Minton finds himself dragged into looking for Fearless's missing friend "Watermelon Man" and quickly becomes involved in trying to find other missing things, including a rare book and an emerald pendant. Worse, he and Fearless discover a murder involving the wealthy family of businessman Winifred L. Fine. According to Michael Rogers in Library Journal, "Fearless and Paris make a grand duo. . . . You won't be able to turn the pages fast enough while hoping it never ends."
Mosley has demonstrated a willingness to expand his horizons beyond the Easy Rawlins mystery series into the realms of science fiction and social commentary. He has actively used his popularity and influence to address the economic and social concerns of the day. Mosley told D. J. R. Bruckner of the New York Times: "Mysteries, stories about crime, about detectives, are the ones that really ask the existentialist questions such as 'How do I act in an imperfect world when I want to be perfect?' I'm not really into clues and that sort of thing, although I do put them in my stories. I like the moral questions." As Emory Holmes II wrote in Los Angeles Magazine, Mosley has become "a rich and increasingly strident voice in publishing."
November 2003: Mosley is scheduled to host the 2003 National Book Awards ceremony. Source: New York Times, September 16, 2003.
July 1, 2004: Mosley's novel Little Scarlet was published by Little, Brown. Source: New York Times, July 5, 2004.
January 2006: Mosley's book The Wave was published by Warner Books. Source: Barnes and Noble, January 20, 2006.
December 26, 2006: Mosley's novel Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel was published by Bloomsbury. Source: Publishers Weekly, January 3, 2007.
April 2007: Mosley's nonfiction writing guide, This Year You Write Your Novel, was published by Little, Brown. Source: Barnes and Noble, January 4, 2009.
October 2007: Mosley's book Blonde Faith, was published by Little, Brown. Source: Barnes and Noble, January 4, 2009.
Walter Mosley's Official Web Site, (January 9, 2009).
Biography Resource Center. Gale.
Notable Black American Men. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center: African Americans. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, Cengage Learning. 2009.
Document Number: K1622000325