Tired sleuth

Can Walter Mosley kick the crime-novel habit?
By CLEA SIMON  |  March 16, 2010

CRIME JUNKIE In his second Leonid McGill mystery, Mosley seems to be returning to his roots — with mixed results.

Known to Evil | By Walter Mosley | Riverhead Books | $25.95 | 336 pages
Has Walter Mosley gone off crime fiction? With the creation of Easy Rawlins in 1990, Mosley perfected the African-American side of the genre — along with a poetic and insightful take on post-war LA up through the 1960s — in 11 consistently solid books, the most recent coming out in 2007.

But an artist will want to explore, and in the 30-plus works published since that Rawlins debut, Devil in a Blue Dress, Mosley has taken some fruitful sabbaticals. In 1995, he left his popular hero to give us RL's Dream, a beautiful little novel about a blues singer that won the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Award in Fiction. In 1997, in the stellar short-story collection Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, he again shelved the handsome, confident Rawlins, focusing instead on the broken-down ex-con Socrates Fortlaw. And in subsequent years, he's continued to explore the interaction of race and class, with or without plots involving crime and justice, dabbling in sci-fi, erotica, and YA along the way.

In Known to Evil, he seems to be returning to his roots, with mixed results. The follow up to last year's The Long Fall, this new book brings back Leonid McGill, a self-described "chubby, bald black man" with a boxer's capacity to withstand pain. Like so many of Mosley's protagonists, he's a fallen angel. Once muscle for hire, McGill is now seeking redemption as a private investigator. Sometimes he takes on clients, and the main action of this book begins with an assignment to look for a missing woman named Tara Lear. Occasionally he assigns himself work, as when he sets out to save Ron Sharkey, a junkie arrested with a car full of illegal weapons. Both cases have their roots in McGill's past: Tara is being sought by a mysterious power broker, the kind McGill cannot refuse, and Sharkey is a victim of McGill's earlier life, a man too broken to take care of himself. Add in a loveless marriage and his son's involvement with a mob-owned Russian hooker and there's quite a bit to keep McGill busy.

Only it doesn't. Already by his second outing, McGill has acquired a coterie of those helpful friends that only fictional detectives have. There's not one but two tech whizzes — both of them willing to drop everything for McGill. There's not one but two equally obliging hired killers, plus an underworld landlord, and those mysterious powers-that-be who can be counted on to swoop in and clean everything up.

These helpers leave little for our hero to do, and the resolution of the main case makes it clear that the missing young woman was never much more than an excuse for McGill to chew over his demons and revisit the streets where once he did so much wrong.

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