Noir with a Suit 

Walter Mosley redefines the African-American crime fiction genre.

Like any crime fiction writer worth his similes, Walter Mosley gives you plenty of noirish scene-setting, deadpan dialogue, murderous motive, titillating temptresses, and amorality run amok. Yet the Los Angeles-born author, who currently resides in New York, is no mere pulp hack. His novels are far from clichéd dimestore fodder, with finely etched characters who do more than just trade lead bullets and leaden expressions. There's as much history as mystery in a Mosley book, and after ten entries in the Easy Rawlins series, the latest being Cinnamon Kiss, he has become an acknowledged master of the genre.

Like Dashiell Hammett, Mosley is possessed of a social conscience; like Raymond Chandler, his plots are full of exciting twists; and like Chester Himes, race is often a subtext behind his richly woven yarns. I sauntered through the door not sure of why I was being so tough on this powerful white man. I had baited him out of instinct. I wondered if I was being a fool, he writes in Cinnamon Kiss.

Over the phone from NYC, Mosley explains that Rawlins' predilection for finding trouble is directly related not just to his occupation, but also his skin color. "How do black men stay out of trouble if they want to be living a life of quality in America in the mid-20th century? I mean, there really is no way. The only way they can stay out of trouble is just bow your head down and don't ask for trouble. Because to cause trouble means to ask for your rights."

Mosley recognizes he's continuing in a literary tradition -- the African-American detective novel-cum-social commentary -- pioneered by Himes, yet he cites Langston Hughes as a far bigger influence on his work. In fact, he says, he was already well into the Rawlins series before reading Himes' policiers. Himes often presented the black experience in a hyperrealistic, almost grotesque, context, but Mosley approaches the topic from a much more humanistic perspective. Racism, he emphasizes, is part of Rawlins' everyday reality. "It's like Seattle in the winter. It's gonna rain every day."

Unlike the almost-superhuman detective icons Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Mosley's laid-back protagonist is no cold-blooded, two-dimensional character, but a thoughtful, intelligent black everyman. "I like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe," he says, "but they aren't the subject of a novel. To be the subject of a novel, you have to have character transition. You have to grow."

Furthermore, while Mosley has tackled the same City of Angels as Chandler did, he has illuminated parts of town that have been otherwise ignored. "You have Philip Marlowe going up and down the streets of LA, but he hardly ever goes into the black neighborhoods," he says. "And when he does, it's not very convincingly."

What Mosley has done in his literary career, he says, is to relate a historical account of black life and black culture in Los Angeles. "Part of the writing of the books is to create a history. It's based on something real, but it's creating a history. This is the language. These are the people. These are the streets. This is what they thought about." As he explains, "You can't have a culture if you don't have a history." Without that, he deadpans, "you're kinda like the shifting sand in a way."

Mosley reads from Cinnamon Kiss on Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the East Bay Church of Religious Science (4130 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) and Saturday at 7:00 p.m. at Cody's Books (1730 Fourth St., Berkeley). For more info, visit CodysBooks.com

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