That Girl Ain't Nobody's Friend
Once again, Walter Mosley goes the distance. His latest crime novel, Fearless Jones, puts his protagonists Paris Minton and title-character Fearless Jones in the literary dining room sitting right there at the head table along with Easy Rawlins.
Many critics claim Easy Rawlins, the unwilling and existential black detective, propelled Mosley into the literary limelight by breaking the color barrier in crime-fiction writing. The Rawlins series, currently five volumes, (including Gone Fishin’ as a prequel to the series) undeniably established Mosley as a first-rate mystery writer, but Mosley is not the first to offer black detectives or mysteries—Charles Himes’ novels are credited by many as breaking the barrier decades ago. It’s Mosley’s superb crafting of the crime novel, his sparse descriptions that paint a ten-word picture which others could only hope to draw with one hundred, and his depiction of the rural South and black southerners (whether in Louisiana or L.A.) which are the real keys to his best-selling status. Easy Rawlins brought Mosley fame, fortune, and membership on the boards of important literary organizations, and it may be due to Mosley’s success that the crime genre has become increasingly popular for African-American writers (Terris MacMahan Grimes and Barbara Neely, for example). His popularity is unparalleled. His books are studied in college curriculums, his name appears in the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, and he even had dinner at the White House (while that may not sound like a big deal, how many authors can you name who dined at the White House?).
Sticking with the classic mystery-novel formula that has always worked for Mosley, Fearless Jones takes a beautiful damsel in distress and has her seek help from a seemingly innocent Everyman, in this case by the name of Paris Minton. By adding the prerequisite plot components of murder, mayhem, sex, and a felon for a best friend, Mosley drives straight on through the plot, teasing the reader by exposing facts and delivering coincidences with more than enough speed to keep the reader interested.
Paris Minton owns a second-hand bookstore where he sells public library cast-offs. Enter the damsel, and, as the book jacket says, “Before he knows it, Paris has been beaten up, slept with, shot at, and robbed, and his bookstore has been burned to the ground.” Obviously Paris is going to need some help dealing with this turn of events, so he gets the $500 needed to bail his buddy Fearless Jones out of jail to help him. To reveal more would spoil the book’s surprises, but it involves storefront preachers, Jewish accountants, and post-WWII intrigue. How does he make it work? By letting us solve the mystery along with the characters, without subordinating those characters to the plot. We work alongside Fearless Jones and Paris Minton, trying to solve the mystery while cheering them on, feeling their pain:
“Please don’t, brother.” My trembling words betrayed me. “I don’t know nuthin’.”
He slapped me again. My head turned around so far that I was sure my neck was broken.
I fell to the floor, noticing as I hit that my killer wore leather sandals on bare feet. As I lost consciousness I thought that if a man was going to kill me, he should at least wear grown-up men’s shoes.
And how does Paris handle it all?
I had brought myself to the edge of that minefield by asking a couple of good questions and by perseverance. But every step from then on was laid out for a better man than I was. So I sat there trying to will myself up the evolutionary ladder from man to superman. But when I got out of that car, there was no cape dragging behind me, only a tail between my legs.
And so it goes. Mosley weaves the story through 1950s L.A. from a black man’s perspective. With the deft skill exhibited in his previous mysteries, Mosley’s Fearless Jones offers fast-paced, intricate plot twists and interesting dialogue, peppered with Paris Minton’s narrative asides explaining the differences between 1950s Louisiana and L.A. culture. For instance, in two nimble paragraphs, Mosley takes the South, illiteracy, poverty, and Jim Crow laws and throws them into one barrel and ends up with a succinct explanation for 1950s westward migration rising to the top of the brine:
Everybody was poor, but nobody starved. We partied on Saturday nights and praised the Lord for our babies on Sundays. We worked hard when we had to and took it easy when there was a chance. A lot of colored people tell me that they hate the South; Jim Crow and segregation made a heavy weight for their hearts. But I never felt like that. I mean, lynching were a terrible thing, and some of those peckerwoods acted so stupid they embarrassed the hell out of you sometimes. But I still loved the little shack I shared with my mother. I’d have still been there if it wasn’t for one terrible event.
That event was learning to read.
As evidenced previously, Mosley is not afraid of violence. He peppers this novel with pulp-fiction action scenes. Shots are fired, blood splatters, bones crush, and women get smacked around. Even sweet little old Jewish ladies get whacked in this one. American crime novels, from the 1930s to the present, are known for their startling bursts of rage, blistering violence, and their characters’ often total lack of conscience. A 1955 classic, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, is the quintessential story of an American con man with no conscience or sense of remorse. So timely was its plot, it sustained two film versions, the later one in 1999. Chester Himes wrote a series of novels about the Harlem detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, in which the two slam through the pages with unrestrained brutality. Mosley, like Himes and other crime novelists, frequently throws in gallows humor (like the reference to “grown-up men’s shoes”), perhaps to temper the remorseless actions of the characters. Punctuated by illicit sexual forays, bursts of rage, terse interpretations of 1950s middle-class Caucasian Judeo-Christian priorities, and a few songs of the Old South, Fearless Jones leaves very few stones unturned.
Mosley is fairly adept at throwing in his two-cents’ worth with the soliloquies offered up by the book’s Everyman, Paris Minton. It’s obvious that he assumes many of his readers are white and that he must educate them as to the internal complexities of the black man’s experience, a noble motive. In the middle of the book, Paris is exhausted and hungry, which provides Mosley with the opportunity to let Paris describe his “extremely well endowed sexual organ” as he ruminates about Fearless’ sexual encounter of the evening. As Paris waits for a cheeseburger from his favorite white-guy-owned hamburger stand, he also reflects upon the stand owner’s inability to relate to the black man’s experience because he, the owner, is from Barre, Vermont and didn’t know a negro until he was twenty-five years old:
Over the years I had come to realize that people who had no experience with each other rarely hated with the vehemence that I had experienced from some southerners. Sal didn’t have any preconceptions about blacks. Because of that he was critical in ways that other people weren’t. He loved to talk to me about how he didn’t understand why Negroes didn’t make more out of themselves. “I mean, why don’t you guys just go to school and buy the businesses and take over your own communities like the Catholics and the Jews?” he’d ask. He didn’t believe that racism existed except in the southern fraternities. He was a nice guy, but just like the libraries of the north and south, he had very little information about me.
These pseudo-sermons present some problems for me, mostly because many of them seem to come out of left-field and are irrelevant to the plot. I understand the relevance of explaining how Minton felt when he was denied access to the library because he was black; we are supposed to develop empathy for the love he has for his bookstore and the availability of reading material. It’s strange to me that, while reading the book, I skimmed over the racial issues which crawl around the underbelly of the book’s plot. I just kept reading in the usual way one reads a mystery or crime novel, not looking for social significance or greater meaning, rather just following a plot line and trying to figure out who done it. The author’s attempt at tackling the question of racism in the 1950s in both L.A. and the American south was not something I expected in this book and I felt I was being jerked around because he did a half-assed job of it. He should address these issues in another book, perhaps in a different genre.
There is much to be written of Mosley’s impact on African-American writing and on e-books and online publishing. His ability to write beyond the crime novel genre has been proven with his novels RL’s Dream and Blue Light. He continues to forge into the next century with groundbreaking publishing events such as his publishing two books exclusively in e-book form. Another of his books, Gone Fishin’, a prequel to the Easy Rawlins series, is published by Black Classics Press as a nod toward commonality and a shared spirit with the African-American writing community. For me, however, it’s about the quality of writing. I don’t consider the superiority of a book according to the author’s skin color or ethnic or socio-economic background. I prefer to believe Walter Mosley’s books have a wide audience based on their merit.
To sum it all up, the bad news is that admiration of Mosley’s writing has become a cliché. The good news is, he continues to live up to his reputation. I enjoyed Fearless Jones and I’m in the middle of Blue Light, so I guess I’ll keep on reading whatever Mosley offers to us.