Walter Mosley was in his mid-30s when, tired of writing computer code for Mobil, he jotted down a sentence: “On hot sticky days in southern Louisiana, the fire ants swarm.”
It wasn’t long before Mosley switched over from writing code to writing fiction. In 1990, at age 38, he published his first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress. His love of writing has not diminished. Devil in a Blue Dress, which Alta’s California Book Club will discuss at its December 17 gathering, has led to 13 other titles in the cherished series of hard-boiled mystery novels featuring Easy Rawlins, a self-made Los Angeles detective. The next, Blood Grove, is due out in February.
Many authors would be content to produce a total of 15 novels. Mosley, though, has published a few lifetimes’ worth of work. In the past three decades, he’s written more than 50 books, including other mystery series, science-fiction novels, stand-alone novels, novellas, graphic novels, and short stories. A voracious reader from an early age, Mosley has said that he likes the routine of writing on a daily basis. But he’s also driven by a sense of purpose. Many of his works, both fiction and nonfiction, confront injustice. His characters are often flawed but principled heroes, like Rawlins, who are out to right the wrongs of the world—a world afflicted with racial injustice.
In November, Mosley won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters—he’s the first Black man to receive the prize in its 32-year history. In presenting the medal, author Edwidge Danticat praised the resolve that’s at the heart of so many of Mosley’s creations. “His characters constantly question the status quo, all while demanding urgent answers of both the world and themselves,” she said. “And sometimes they carry the weight of all our tales.”
Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, echoed those remarks in a statement, saying, “Mosley is undeniably prolific, but what sets his work apart is his examination of both complex issues and intimate realities through the lens of characters in his fiction, as well as his accomplished historical narrative works and essays.”
Mosley has said that plot matters less to him than the portrait he wants to paint of modern Black life in America. “When I think about writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, I don’t like those writers because they are crime writers but because of what they tell me about people,” he said in a recent interview. “In my own work, I’m actually trying to understand human nature.”
The Rawlins novels were instantly popular because they toyed with an old genre—the detective thriller—by centering it on Black lives. (A 1995 movie adaptation starring Denzel Washington also helped make Rawlins a beloved character.) The series spans decades, beginning in post–World War II Watts and stretching, thus far, to the 1960s. A Red Death (1991), the follow-up to Devil in a Blue Dress, takes place during the McCarthy era, five years after the first novel ends, and has Rawlins reluctantly spying for the FBI (in order to evade the IRS). In White Butterfly (1992), Rawlins, now married and with children, hits the streets again to investigate the killings of four young women. The Rawlins series also takes readers back to events preceding those of Devil in a Blue Dress: in Gone Fishin’ (1997), Mosley delves into Rawlins’s roots in Houston, his explosive friend Mouse by his side. In just seven years, from 1990 to 1997, Mosley wrote the first six novels in the series. He returned to it in 2002, having written yet more books in the meantime.
Mosley was so enthralled by Black life in 1950s L.A. that he conceived another mystery series set in that time. Those three books—Fearless Jones (2001), Fear Itself (2003), and Fear of the Dark (2006)—focus on two unlikely pals: crime fighters Fearless Jones and timid Watts bookseller Paris Minton. In 2009, Mosley transported readers from his native L.A. to contemporary New York (where he now lives) for his latest mystery series, this one devoted to the character Leonid McGill, a former boxer who finds a new life as a private detective.
Mosley’s creative range seems boundless. Among his dozens of books are four works of science fiction, a young adult novel (47, 2005), short fiction (The Awkward Black Man, 2020), and even erotica (Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel, 2006).
“Ever curious, Walter is always in search of new ground,” Danticat said. “Walter’s work digs deeply into not only the world we inhabit but the imminent world we might hope for, all that we are and all that we are becoming.”
To join Walter Mosley in conversation with Alta’s California Book Club, click here.