Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Book Notes: Charcoal Joe, Easy Rawlins and Walter Mosley

I was fortunate to hear Walter Mosley speak during a major mystery convention more than a few years ago.  He told the story of a Hollywood studio wanting the movie rights to one of his books.  As part of the negotiation, the studio also wanted the rights to “novelize” the movie. That is, they wanted to write a novel based on the book on which they based the movie. This incredibly circular logic may help explain why writers find the wielders of power in the film capital of the world a few bricks shy of a load.
Thank goodness, Mosley said no.  The original book was the real thing.  And so, from my perspective, is Walter Mosley. More than a quarter century ago, authors Mosley, Janet Dawson, Jerome Doolittle and I had our first novels nominated for a Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award (Best First P.I. Novel). Mosley triumphed with Devil in a Blue Dress, an Easy Rawlins’ crime novel. Since those days Mosley has zoomed to super stardom.  Fortunately, he hasn’t forgotten Easy, the fictional P.I. who lit the literary fuse for this now universally acclaimed author. Easy is back.

I was also fortunate enough to receive an advanced copy of Charcoal Joe and a chance to revisit Rawlins in advance of the book’s June 14 release. Even with the fear that to judge at all is presumptuous, I’m going to do so anyway.  This is the work of a mature writer, one who has come as close to mastering his craft as most anyone. The slightest of characters is fully fleshed out.  The relationships are fully and deeply developed.

In Charcoal Joe, Mosley mixes the sacred and profane, the earthy with the celestial, the spiritual with the gritty, the sweet sorrow with the outright cruel. He provides an old white guy like me a glimpse into worlds I would be unable to imagine without his words.

In Charcoal Joe, we find P.I. Rawlins trying to clear a brilliant young black student from a murder charge in 1960s Los Angeles, a time and place the author paints with vivid strokes.  The novel isn’t all crime-solving. Rawlins must deal with the complexities in his personal life, trying but not necessarily succeeding in settling down. Just as in the real world, relationships are complex. Even so, Mosley makes sure there are enough guns, sex and suspense to stay true to the genre.

One of the best things about print versus film is that the reader brings his or her own imagination to fill in many of the details and to some extent brings meaning to the story.  One of the difficult things about reading is that there are instances when we discover we cannot bring quite enough knowledge or experience to that particular place in the author’s imagination.  Unfortunately this means we cannot fully give up our foreign status. Mosley’s world in Charcoal Joe, however distant from our own it might be, is blessedly accessible.

This year, the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) bestowed Grand Master status on the novelist, which he can add to a number of benchmarks, including a PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Also, Easy Rawlins’ cements his place in the great literary tradition of American private eyes

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