Free Radical

Photo: Ann Weathersby

Reclining in a comfortable armchair in the Patron’s Lounge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Walter Mosley is in a mellow mood. “I have the career that I’ve always wanted,” he says softly. “I’m a writer. How wonderful.” His signature fedora—today’s has a crisp silk band—hangs at an appropriately rakish angle on the chair’s arm. A huge antique African gold ring is wrapped around one finger. “Of my next five books, four of them are written,” Mosley says casually, smiling. And if you’ve ever left a novel unfinished—four of five?!—you’ll try to hate him now.

At 53, when other best-selling authors might be content to coast on expectations, Mosley is merrily taking risks. Of those next five books, only one is in the mystery genre that’s made him one of the world’s most-read authors (and, famously, Bill Clinton’s favorite writer). The others include a political parable, a science-fiction fantasy, a brash nonfiction book about politics, and “a sex novel, a pornographic novel,” as Mosley calls it, that begins as a New Yorker finds his girlfriend in bed with another man—and doesn’t tell her.

It’s a remarkable creative explosion for a writer best known for his Easy Rawlins mystery series. But then, unlike many of its peers on the genre shelf, the Easy Rawlins stories have never been possible to dismiss as candy entertainment—with deep characterization and radical thematic range, Mosley’s is the rare genre series to achieve both a mass following and critical respect. In contrast to other mystery heroes, Easy Rawlins—a hard-boiled legend every bit as potent as Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer—has done something rare for an iconic character: He grew up.

“Publishers like to say, ‘This book did very well—now write it again and again and again,’ ” says Mosley. “And pretty soon the author gets tired, and the books become threadbare. Readers wonder why they’re reading about this character twenty years later and he’s still the same age.”

Instead, Easy Rawlins has made his way through history, starting out as a young-buck World War II vet in the segregated Louisiana bayou and making his way to the hard streets of Watts, where he became a part-time private eye, then a janitor, and now a real-estate developer, licensed private eye, and, most shocking, responsible father of two. In 2004’s Little Scarlet, Easy was thrown into the 1965 Watts riots that had traumatized Mosley’s father, and the author earned some of the best reviews of his career. The latest installment, Cinnamon Kiss, which is due out this week, picks up after the riots and follows a murder case that leads Easy through the communes and ashrams of 1968 San Francisco.

As Easy has explored wider worlds, so has Mosley. His series recalls that of the playwright August Wilson, who devoted a play to African-American life in each decade of the last century. Mosley agrees that his work and Wilson’s share a great deal—particularly the idea of showing black characters who aren’t “pimps or shoe-shiners or Shaft, but regular guys sitting in a room talking over our problems.” Like Wilson, Mosley says he’d like to extend his series into the year 2000 and can imagine exactly what the Louisiana natives Easy and Mouse—Easy’s hard-core buddy and the throbbing, violent heart of many of Mosley’s books—would do if they’d seen the recent damage.

“Easy’d just go right down there to help people,” says Mosley. “Mouse would be shooting at the National Guard.”

There’s always been a populist thrust to crime literature, in which blue-collar detectives like Easy work pro bono, often uncovering the crimes of the rich when the government is too corrupt or complicit to do so. But Mosley has embraced the politics implicit in his writing, addressing power and government in a way few successful genre writers have before. He’s used three science-fiction novels to explore radical ideas that realistic fiction couldn’t contain—in Futureland, imagining a world “in which capitalism has realized the communist dream of no more private property, an idea I couldn’t even begin to address in a mystery.” His experimental novel, The Man in My Basement, introduced a poor black Long Island man who rented his basement to a exploitative Master of the Universe. And Mosley’s third nonfiction monograph, Life Out of Context, which will be published this winter, suggests that black Americans should secede from the Democratic Party, because Mosley believes that both parties have abandoned the poor.

“It’s not just Bush,” says Mosley, referring to Hurricane Katrina. “Truth is, if you’re a conservative economically, you’re a conservative socially. Anyone who says they have a conservative economic agenda—poor people are going to die under their watch.”

Mosley’s become a regular guest on NPR, and he likes to alternate political essays with fiction at book readings. But if there’s one political thrust that unites all of Mosley’s work, “it’s that I write about black male heroes,” he says simply. “All over the place, that’s what I’m doing.”

The author has even written a superhero screenplay called Black Angel, as well as an audacious young-adult novel called 47 (out this past spring), a heroic story set on a realistic slave plantation. Mosley gave his protagonist, a young child, magical powers, he says, to solve a problem he’s found in getting young African-American readers to confront this part of their history: “Kids don’t like to read about slavery because they’re always victims.”

It is the irony of Mosley’s life that as his work has gotten wilder and more aggressively political, his life has become increasingly sweet and even comfortable. “Often as a writer, you think of other writers,” Mosley plainly admits. “But who would I want to trade places with?”

“Easy’d just go right down there to help people,” says Mosley about New Orleans. “Mouse would be shooting at the National Guard.”

Indeed, his routine sounds downright dreamy: Every day, Mosley, a City College grad who has lived in New York for two decades, wakes up and writes—often, he says, in the nude—for four hours in his Greenwich Village apartment, which contains an impressive collection of thousands of comic books. His current work is that “pornographic novel,” in which he will follow the advice of a City College instructor who told him that sex writing “shouldn’t be nice, it should sound nasty.” Sometimes he works on a side project, like the Middle Passage film script he wrote for HBO. Recently, he adapted a screenplay from a friend’s history of Robespierre, and completed work on an art-book reproduction of his favorite Fantastic Four comic books for Marvel. Often, he spends afternoons behind a pottery wheel at the 92nd Street Y.

But despite this remarkably varied creative output, he has hardly given up on the pleasures of classic hard-core dialogue. In fact, he says he can pinpoint the moment he came up with his favorite line in the forthcoming Fear of the Dark. In the novel, Mouse and two men are racing down the street with a corpse in the back of their truck. One man panics, worried the cops will pull them over. “Mouse gets mad,” Mosley explains excitedly. “He says, ‘You don’t have to worry about that. It’s their widows, their fatherless children, have to worry about that.’ ”

Mosley rocks back in his chair like a magician amazed by his own trick.

“I’m so happy with that line,” he brags, beaming. “Damn, that’s tough! It’s so hard-boiled.”

The way he tells it, he had no more plan for that scene than he does for his career—and is just as eager to see what lurks around the next corner. “Writing’s like the city,” he says. “You go outside, you start walking, and you see where it takes you.”

Free Radical