Walter Mosley has proven over and over again during the past two decades that he is not only one of America’s greatest mystery writers, but is one of America’s greatest writers period --- an American literary treasure. And in ALL I DID WAS SHOOT MY MAN, the fourth entry in his Leonid McGill series, Mosley has given us one of his best works ever.
While he probably will always be remembered as the creator of the Easy Rawlins mysteries, which showed us the mean streets of Raymond Chandler’s postwar Noir L.A. from the perspective of a black detective, Mosley is doing something equally fascinating in the series featuring New York private eye Leonid McGill.
"ALL I DID WAS SHOOT MY MAN is one of the best books of 2012, and you can’t help but root for Leonid McGill. We have much to look forward to with this series. Kudos to Walter Mosley."
For years, mystery fans lamented that the hardboiled detective had been copied so frequently after Dashiell Hammett and Chandler that he had become a cliché: the loner in a corrupt world who is himself good and fights for what is right and just with the help of the bottle of Rye in his desk drawer. Many said that the American PI was a genre that was finished, especially when written in the first-person narrative.
Mosley has proven them quite wrong with Leonid McGill. In Leonid, he gets us rooting for someone who has been a bad guy all his life. Leonid tells us at the start: “I worked for organized crime and other professional bad men finding patsies for those that felt law enforcement closing in…I’d plant false evidence, alter phone records and forge documents to prove that some other poor slob at least might have been the perpetrator.” The cops, he tells us later, “suspected me of everything from contract murder to armed robbery, from kidnapping to white slavery.” They were never able to take him down for anything. But we know, as the series starts, that Leonid is trying to go straight or, as he says, “at least as straight as a man can get after a lifetime of being bent.”
Enter Zella Grisham, who came home from work one day several years ago and found her boyfriend in bed with her best friend. Hence the title. But since she was already involved in a shooting, somebody paid Leonid to frame her for the robbery of $58 million from an insurance company. Leonid did the job. The stolen money was never recovered, except for the $50,000 he was given to plant on Zella. Trying to make amends but not admitting his role in her downfall to her, Leonid gets Zella released from prison. This sets off a series of events where the past is never past and bodies start piling up; the cops think Leonid knows more than he says, which he does, but they also suspect he was in on the robbery. Leonid must get to the bottom of it before he becomes the next victim.
In Leonid McGill, Mosley has created a character Dostoyevsky would have loved. Leonid is a guy struggling to do the right thing, to find redemption in a world where the concept may no longer even exist. And still things go wrong for him. He is trapped by his choices in life in a true Noir underworld where he knows that despite what he does to make things right, someday he will have to pay for his sins. When somebody calls his name on the street one night, he thinks, “I was unarmed and on an empty street. That could have been the moment of my death. Could have been. Probably would be one day.” It does not get more hardboiled than that.
Leonid goes through this book and series always with a dark cloud over his head. And Mosley has taken the cliché of the lone wolf knight errant detective and turned it on his head. Leonid is a family man of sorts, haunted not just by his underworld career. For years, he hated his Communist father who deserted him as a child and destroyed his mother in order to go fight in the revolutions of South America. Now that father, who he long thought dead, is very much alive and back in the city. Then there is his marriage of 24 years to a perpetually unfaithful woman who gave him three children, only one of whom is his blood. Leonid takes care of this dysfunctional family.
And there is trouble on Leonid’s home front. One son is moving out to live with a former prostitute. His second son has already followed him into a life of crime, and Leonid is trying to protect him by taking him under his wing as a PI in training. Meanwhile, his young daughter is involved in an unsuitable relationship with an older man. And his wife wants reconciliation while he is in love with another woman. Leonid must untangle or try to untangle all these knots.
Mosley has written a mystery novel that transcends the genre --- a private-eye story for the new, uncertain and constantly dangerous century. ALL I DID WAS SHOOT MY MAN is one of the best books of 2012, and you can’t help but root for Leonid McGill. We have much to look forward to with this series. Kudos to Walter Mosley.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 26, 2012