Some writers have the good fortune of being born at a time when the world needs them.
As a black man growing up in post-war Los Angeles, Walter Mosely experienced racial strife during a particularly tumultuous period in American history.
The son of an African-American father and a Jewish mother, Mosley recalls the LA of his youth as a time of prosperity when some racial barriers were dissolving.
Mosley was 13 in 1965 when 10's of thousands of people rioted in the city of Watts. At the time, he was in a mixed-race acting troupe that did civil rights plays. And on the day the rioting started, the troupe was doing a stage performance.
"But nobody came to the play because people were rioting. There were police going up and down the street," Mosley told KNPR's State of Nevada. "It was black and white actors, and so we all got together in one car, the white people got on the floor. And we just drove through the city watching people fight, and people shooting, and people looting, and police looking at them."
Drawing on his upbringing, as well as his love of books and writing, Mosley created his most well-known character. Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins.
Rawlins is a black World War II veteran-turned-private-detective, and through this unusual character we get a fresh look at 1950s and 1960s Los Angeles.
Until Mosley created Easy Rawlins, it was a perspective that hadn't been offered in fiction.
Crime fiction can be thin and flat, almost two-dimensional. But so are potato chips--that's part of what makes them tasty. True to form, Mosley's stories are fast paced and hard boiled. His character act. They fight, kill, drink and sleep together with an unnaturally swift decisiveness.
We devour the story with the same hunger that makes a binge-watcher launch into another episode of Game of Thrones. Mosley says it quenches a need in us to see the kind of resolution we don't enjoy in everyday life.
"There are corrupt political officials. There are corrupt police. There are crimes that happen that never get solved. All of these things we know are true, but the world tells us (they aren't) true." Mosley said. "And when you read crime fiction, you have people who see the things we suspect (are true), and then deal with (them) in ways we find very satisfying."
Still, the best of Mosley's work has a depth of field not typically found in crime fiction. His books have historical dimension and detail that is rich and satisifying. And then there are the racial dimensions. The obstacles aren't just tough guys, duplicitous dames, and crooked cops--the hero has to navigate the tricky nuances of race to solve the mystery.
"For Easy (Rawlins), race is a major issue," Mosley told KNPR's State of Nevada. "It's something that he faces and encounters ten times every day. Something about being black is going impact him."
Since the publication of Devil In A Blue Dress in 1990, Mosley has published 49 books, and he's been outspoken on matters of race in American life.
To Mosley, the recent riots in Baltimore are made of the same stuff as those he witnessed in 1965 when he was 13.
Walter Mosley will speak as the inaugural Black Mountain Institute’s Jim Rogers Contrarian Lecturer, Thursday, May 7 at 7 p.m. at the Student Union Ballroom on the UNLV campus.
BMI has asked writers or intellectuals to give a ‘contrarian’ view of a particular subject. Mosely's lecture will focus on higher education.
(Editor's note this interview originally ran May 2015)
Walter Mosley, novelist