Known to Evil by Walter Mosley

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.

RATING 6 / 10