Walter Mosley made the difficult decision a few years back to stop writing about the literary creation that made him famous: Easy Rawlins, the unconventional black private eye from Los Angeles. He instead introduced a new detective series set in contemporary New York featuring a middle-aged black man named Leonid McGill. THE LONG FALL, the first installment in the series, released in 2009.
KNOWN TO EVIL, the second McGill book, confirms what longtime readers of this author have long known: Mosley is one of our best writers, not just of crime fiction but of all genres. The challenge he faced was to write a detective novel relevant to the America of the early years of the 21st century. The detectives created by Hammett and Chandler, and even late 20th-century writers like Ed McBain and Robert B. Parker, were products of the last century, as great and enjoyable as those characters were.
Mosley’s McGill bares little resemblance to those earlier heroes. McGill is a likable character, but he has lived his life in a sea of corruption. He worked as a freelancer fixer for the mob, and anybody else who could pay, and freely admits to spending 20 years involved in criminal activity. “I framed these lowlifes for crimes that other crooks needed to get out from under --- all for a fee, of course,” he says early on. One cop, upon meeting McGill for the first time, says, “They say you got your finger in every dishonest business in the city.”
At 54, McGill has not exactly seen the light but is seeking some sort of redemption. In his midlife crises, he is wracked by guilt and relentless headaches over his past. He says, “Innocent or not, anyone can be made to look bad. And I had enough skeletons in my closet to make a death row inmate seem angelic. But I wasn’t worried… just overwhelmed by the circumstances of my life.” And what a life! Married for 23 years, with 20 of them marked by mutual infidelity, father to children not his own, and convinced he drove away the one woman he loved, McGill is alone, even when he is surrounded by family. While struggling to stay straight, his past is always present.
When a powerful New York political fixer needs a job done, McGill is not in a position to say no. Alfonso Rinaldo is the unofficial, unelected “special assistant to the City of New York.” He is not an assistant to the mayor but to the entire city somehow --- the power behind the powers. He needs McGill to check up on a mysterious young woman, but no further details are forthcoming. McGill goes to an address and literally walks into a double homicide with the bodies still warm.
Now McGill has a real problem. Is he finally being set up himself? The cops are thrilled to see McGill stumble onto their crime scene. Various members of the NYPD have been looking for something to nail him on for years. McGill can’t mention Rinaldo’s name to the cops or else he will be in even deeper trouble. When it turns out that neither victim was the young woman, Rinaldo insists that McGill continue looking for her, not even telling him why he wants her found.
Before THE LONG FALL, Mosley said he wanted to write a contemporary urban noir. And he has succeeded beautifully here. McGill is not a knight-errant. He is a man just trying to survive, a small dangerous fish in a world of invisible giant sharks. Like a noir character from the classic period, his journey through the underworld of modern-day New York takes him from the secret warehouse detention centers of the National Security State to the sparkling corporate towers of midtown Manhattan. At one point, he meets a woman as powerful as Rinaldo on the top floor of a bank skyscraper accessible only by private elevator.
“‘New York is like a boiling cauldron,’ [McGill] said, only dimly understanding why. ‘We are all consumed therein.’
‘That’s down on the street you are talking about,’ Sanderson told me with a dismissive wave of her liver-spotted hands. ‘Up here it’s different. Up here we can make a difference.’”
Mosley writes about that difference. And, like in the Rawlins books, there is plenty of social commentary about modern America here. McGill says, “The government, even in a democracy, has the power to indict and condemn with impunity --- below a certain income bracket, that is. And even though I was working for Rinaldo, that didn’t mean he would protect me. My independent status made me expendable, and if I tried to bring him down with me I’d end up one of those lamentable suicides hanging from the bars of a subterranean cell.”
The corruption at the heart of this book revolves not around the murder of two people or the disappearance of a young woman, but deals with the fact that the system we have been brought up to believe in perhaps bares little reality to what actually goes on behind the scenes where the actual power lies. And maybe the real crime is that we are all guilty on some level. McGill says, “At any moment almost any American (barring movie stars, publicly acknowledged billionaires and sitting members of Congress) could be whisked away to that nameless building, en route to one of our satellite Siberias, and kept there until a botched water torture or the shrug of some judge sent them home.”
But then McGill abducts off the street an assassin sent to kill the young woman and calls in a specialist he knows to torture the man in a Brooklyn warehouse until McGill obtains the information he needs to get a handle on his case. He lets the man live, but he knows he is not much better than the state officials who use “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Walter Mosley has written a vibrant detective series for the new century, reflecting the America of today. We live in uncertain times, and Mosley captures that perfectly here. McGill’s old boxing trainer, now dying of cancer, says to him, “…there comes a time when you just don’t win anymore.” McGill responds, “But there is always a chance at a comeback.” KNOWN TO EVIL is an entertaining, powerful mystery novel, one of the best of the year. And it will be enjoyable to watch Leonid McGill fighting for his comeback over the next several years.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on May 2, 2011