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 Manh