Known to Evil by Walter Mosley

Leonid McGill is a fantastic representation of a flawed and struggling American man at a time of historical flux.

Known To Evil

Publisher: Riverhead
Length: 336 pages
Author: Walter Mosley
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-03

Last year Walter Mosley kicked off his Leonid McGill detective mysteries with The Long Fall. The series is set in present day New York City and McGill is a deeply flawed hero, setting himself against Mosley’s most well-known character, the heroic Easy Rawlins who lives in mid-20th century Los Angeles.

Leonid is a 50-something short stocky amateur boxer. His marriage to his Scandinavian wife Katrina is a sham; they are always sleeping with other people. His favorite son Twill is not his own and operates as a teen-aged hustler, “handsome and flawless.”

Before becoming a detective McGill was a freelance criminal, providing information and orchestrating blackmail schemes for larger rackets. He acknowledges that his actions resulted in the deaths and ruination of good people and the depth and extent of McGill’s perfidy creates an eradicable aura of menace around his character. In Known to Evil, Mosley’s new McGill book, Leonid says, “Just some big hands on a stout man. But if you look close you can see the blood on them. Blood and shit and, and, and maggots turnin’ into flies. I wash ‘em every night, and every morning they’re filthy again.”

McGill is a well-developed multi-faceted character and The Long Fall was entertaining, but not riveting. The structure was overly familiar from the Rawlins books, the pace dragged at times, and it seemed stymied by the need to establish McGill and his universe. Perhaps detective series, like sitcoms, need time to find their rhythm.

New York has been working over time lately to give fodder to crime and mystery writers: David Patterson, Elliot Spitzer, the Wall Street meltdown, the real estate downturn, and terrorist threats. The financial train wreck in particular has put the city’s power brokers in vulnerable positions and brought corruption to the surface. This environment lends itself well to the deeply corrupted universe of McGill’s New York and it pays off with Known to Evil.

Newspaper headlines are succulent pickings for the crime novelist and while Mosley doesn’t grab easy fruits to make some corrupt hedge fund the lynchpin of the book’s crimes, the current era is nonetheless a pulsing and ever present backdrop.

It opens at home with McGill sitting down to a suspiciously cheery family dinner when the phone rings and a “legman” for Alphonse Rinaldo, a shadowy all-powerful puppeteer of city politics, requests that he meet a woman, Tara Lee, at a certain apartment building. When he arrives at the building it has been roped off by the police. A different woman and a man have been found dead in the apartment and McGill is then charged with tracking down Lee without having any clue as to why.

While trying to find Lee, a free spirited and apparently innocent woman who nonetheless is also being trailed by assassins, thugs, and the rich and powerful, McGill quickly becomes embroiled in multiple smaller mysteries. Twill and his son Dimitri have disappeared with a young Russian girl. Katrina is acting suspiciously happy when not freaking out over her sons. Ron Sharkey, an innocent man brought low after McGill framed him on false drug charges, is now being brought up on a terrorism rap and McGill wants to assuage his guilt by protecting him.

It is a thrill watching McGill, a man who has a hard time walking up the stairs to his apartment, trying to juggle multiple cases without dropping a ball or losing his mind. But these puzzles are too often solved through narrative contrivance and the assistance of McGill’s assistants and informants such as Bug Bateman, an overweight computer geek who functions as his Q and has the ability to track down anyone or hack into any computer system. Thematically, the different mysteries don’t gel as well as in the Rawlins books either.

The strength of this book is in watching the mysteries unfold. Mosley’s writing evokes the intelligently tossed off pulp of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett with heightened self-awareness and deeper thematic layers. There is a pleasure in breezy descriptions like: “The bedroom was sloppy the way some young women are” and snappy dialogue such as:

“Hello, Mr. McGill.”

“You remember my name.”

“That’s a bartender’s job, isn’t it?” Lucy had very nice teeth.

“It used to be that Republicans believed in less government, and people all over the world saw America as the land of opportunity. Things change.”

“I guess I’m a throwback, then.”

Sometimes Mosley’s writing can read too tossed off, as in this subtle-as-a-brick description of a pool hustler and informant: “Luke was of medium height with a face that resembled a water-going snake. His eyes were slits and his nose so wide that it didn’t seem to stand out from his face. His brown skin had a greenish tinge and his head was shaved bald.”

The women characters are too universally painted as overtly sexual creatures, attracted to and openly flirtatious with McGill when by all accounts he is not an attractive man.

In McGill’s New York race is ever present as an overwhelming and impossible to simplify force shaping society. It is not a central issue as in the Rawlins books, where the demarcated black and white of Civil Rights-era Los Angeles perhaps make it to easier address head on. Here Mosley is more interested in the depiction of a complexly interwoven society whose threads cannot be extricated. In Known to Evil he uses supporting characters to bring issues of class, power, sex, and nationality to the fore with greater effect.

Leonid’s relationship with Katrina is especially nuanced. McGill talks about her as cold, calculating, and inscrutable, but Mosley writes about his detective as a problematic narrator unwilling to examine his marriage and his role in its failure, as in this poignant bit of dialogue:

[Katrina] “Why did you take me back if you don’t love me?”

[McGill] “Because you asked me to forgive you.”

[Katrina] “But you never have.”

With the McGill books Mosley tries to take the detective novel and the structures he’s created from his previous works into the sticky territory of the present day. McGill says, “That was another thing about mystery novels: at the end of the story the crime is solved and that’s that. The crook is caught, or maybe just found out. But, regardless, the crime is never carried on to the next book in the series. You rarely find the stalwart and self-possessed dick looking for a perpetrator from the previous story.”

In Known To Evil Mosley carries issues over from the previous book and the fundamental problems in McGill’s life do not get resolved. But some sort of mystery does need to get solved in the detective novel and I don’t think Mosley has yet figured out how to bridge this disconnect between the formal needs of the genre and the more ambitious explorations of society and character in this series.

Still, this book is an improvement over its predecessor and McGill is a fantastic representation of a flawed and struggling American man at a time of historical flux. In one of his more philosophical moments he says,

Americans believe in straight lines. They think that all you have to do is get out there and get the job done, one step after the other. If you don’t do that then you’re either lazy or incompetent. American men especially, and more and more women all the time, seem to think that life is like a mission. That’s how they approach sports and war and sex -- even love. That’s what they think about when somebody’s credit card goes bad or there’s an accident on the road: somebody veered off the straight and narrow.

Easy Rawlins is a good hearted man trying to better society, going after the American dream of business success and the house and happy family it represents. Leonid McGill has no such delusions or aspirations. All he wants is to get a moment’s rest from the problems that come into his life and a tiny bit of redemption for his past actions. He is a deep cynic but as a fighter he is not yet licked and it is within this tiny germ of hope that the heart of this series lies.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.