The Long Fall

Walter Mosley was not the first black crime writer, nor was he the first to fuse genre conventions with larger social concerns. But when Devil in a Blue Dress introduced the Los Angeles-based private detective Easy Rawlins nearly 20 years ago, it was clear the author set out to stretch the boundaries of the mystery and thriller framework. There were larger questions to ask, more ambiguous answers to discover, and as filtered through the complex world view of Easy's own loves and losses, they took on additional and more identifiable resonance for the reader. As what would become an 11-novel epic sequence unfolded, so did one of Mosley's most ambitious aims -- to chronicle the sea changes in American race relations from the end of the Second World War to the beginning of the civil rights movement.

Easy's quest effectively ended with Blonde Faith, but Mosley remains a restless seeker of truth. He's spent his career, with varying degrees of success, flitting in and out of different genres such as science fiction (Blue Light), erotica (Diablerie), young adult (47), and more mainstream fare (the sorely underrated R.L.'s Dream), not to mention prescriptive non-fiction (What Next: An African American Initiative Toward World Peace) and advice (This Year You Write Your Novel). But Mosley's innate compass keeps returning to his true north of crime fiction -- whether embodied in the lighthearted Fearless Jones trilogy of detective novels or the darker, more episodic chronicles of ex-convict Socrates Fortlow. Now, Mosley debuts an auspicious new series teeming with questions more contemporary and more personal, and answers even more difficult to tease out.

"Blood debt is the curse of mankind," remarks one of the supporting players in The Long Fall -- the richest and most pervasive metaphor in a book overstuffed with them. Her sad refrain is directed toward Leonid McGill, a private investigator in latter-day Manhattan who owes his hybrid name to a fervent Communist father, "two inches shorter and forty pounds heavier than a man should be" with a three-day-a-week standing gig in a boxing ring at Gordo's Gym. After "fifty-three years of hard living" Leonid understands the curse of blood debt all too well: "In the years before, I had no problem bringing people down, even framing them with false evidence if that's what the client paid for. I didn't mind sending innocent men, or women, to prison because I didn't believe in innocence -- and virtue didn't pay the bills. That was before my past caught up with me and died, spitting blood and curses on the rug."

No one, least of all Leonid, expects him to morph into a knight errant of pure heart and mind: "Most guys when they see a damsel in a lonely tower want to ride up and save her -- but I knew better. My kind of help shorted out the circuit board, or stripped the gears in your transmission." But the symbolic realization that "all of a sudden you aren't the man holding the gun but about to be shot" leaves him with hope he can lighten the blackened edges of his soul, even a little. So his latest case, to find the last of four men involved in a situation that turned the first three into "rotten apples," will not offer the prospect of redemption, but it will lay bare Leonid's quirky sense of duty and reveal the furious and criminal heart pounding beneath the surface of gentrification.

The sense of duty is most apparent with regard to Leonid's family, a domestic assemblage notable for its chipped veneer and mismatched parts. Its authority is still strong enough to keep him away from Aura, the capable woman Leonid loves and who, inexplicably (to him), returns that love because he is "a man on the road?right out there in the light of day." His wife, Katrina, acts the part of the perfect, kitchen-wizard wife, her spousal deference an ill-fated attempt to repair her part of the mutual infidelity that's lasted for decades. Their African-American/Nordic blonde merger produces three children, but only one -- Dmitri, a taciturn college student who barely speaks to Leonid -- is a true genetic co-production. As a result Leonid spends much time conflicted about his eldest, Shelly's, overt aims to please and, in "a mix of worry and wonderment," about his youngest son, Twill's, increasingly wayward and criminal ways. When Mosley assembles the McGill family for dinner, the results are painful and awkward, a postracial version of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Leonid, however, has much occasion to keep away from the messy conflicts of home as his search for the fourth man, one Roger Brown, takes him all over the map: upstate to Syracuse, within spitting distance of Gracie Mansion, and in close proximity to the violent deaths of others and the possibility of his own demise: "There's a different kind of death waiting for each and everyone one of us -- each and every day of our lives." Leonid questions what others assume and trusts little, but what remains immutable is that he belongs nowhere else but New York City and its continued state of flux: "Most other American municipalities are segregated by class and culture, education and personal choice. But in New York everybody is jumbled up together and bounced around until you have African princes walking side by side with Appalachian Daughters of the American Revolution, and aspiring starlets making room for hopeful housewives past their prime. Even with real estate costs climbing above the reach of almost everyone, you can still find all the elements of humanity riding the number 1 train down under the West Side of Manhattan."

Mosley does not shy away from the harrowing consequences of Leonid's attempts to right his moral wrongs, leaving the private detective longing for a sense of salvation he craves but knows is still beyond his grasp. But The Long Fall also acts as an aperitif for a potentially rich meal to be doled out over further installments: Mosley sets the novel in early 2008, when "people on Madison Avenue didn't mind dark skins" and considered voting for Obama -- if they voted. The change of the calendar opens up a number of fascinating possibilities for Leonid McGill to spend as much time investigating the mysteries of self as he does looking into the abyss deep beneath the supposed harmony of a nation in thrall to audacious hope.

July 25: On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.

Pastoral

When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).