Walter Mosley is one of my favorite mystery writers, but I haven’t read anything of his in quite a while. It’s fun to be back in touch with this prolific creator of such colorful characters as Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, and Useless (Ulysses) Grant. Mosely has a seemingly effortless style that reminds of Larry McMurtry in that everything on the page looks as if it flowed out of the keyboard fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. Here’s the opening sentence of Fear of the Dark:
I was expecting one kind of trouble when another came knocking at my door.
It turns out this is not a metaphor. By page three, someone does come knocking and it’s trouble, and it’s of an unexpected kind. The voice is that of Paris Mintun, owner of a used book store in 1956 South Central L.A. As an educated reader who cares more for a life of contemplation and the mind than one of intrigue and a constant physical struggle for survival, Mintun is a misfit in his neighborhood, his family, and his race. The seldom-frequented bookstore is his business and his home and clears just enough money to feed and shelter him while he pores over his beloved classics. As the opening implies, however, intrigue and danger seek him out despite his extensive efforts to avoid it. He has a weakness for women and they for him because of his gentleness and (incongruously) oversized “manhood.” The resulting tale is simultaneously meaningful and comic, an effect as difficult to achieve as the apparent ease of Mosley’s demanding style.
Although I don’t want to overload Fear of the Dark with too much symbolism, you can read it as emblematic of our collective ignorance and terror of the forces–known and unknown–that await us outside the tenuous boundaries of our secure lives. You can read it as a sociological document about black life in 1950’s California, where segregation, though not de jure, was definitely de facto. Or you can read it for good fun as a well-constructed mystery full of fascination and characters and turns of plot. I hesitate to use that last phrase because people tend to write off mysteries as “action-driven” and thus lacking in literary merit. There’s just as much character as action in Mosley’s work, and if it doesn’t have the scope and depth of Tolstoy, or even of Chabon, it’s mighty tasty, exciting, and unpretentious. And not so heavy to carry around. What you read is what you get, and what you get is flawless and educational and satisfying in the extreme.