The Curious Case of Walter Mosley

By | Nov 30, 2011
2010 September-October, Culture

For one of his classes, he had written a novella featuring a man named Ezekiel Rawlins. He flung his inaugural work toward the publishing giants of New York. Fifteen agents rejected his work. So he returned to the library. After reading Graham Greene’s screenplay, The Third Man, he decided to rework the Easy Rawlins story into a mystery novel. Seeking editorial guidance, he gave the manuscript to Tuten, his CCNY advisor. Tuten was so impressed that he showed it to his own agent, Gloria Loomis, who also liked the novel, and W.W. Norton & Company published Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990. There was critical acclaim, but it was muted. Two more novels in the Easy Rawlins series followed—A Red Death in 1991 and White Butterfly in 1992. Then during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was spotted with a copy of Devil in a Blue Dress and later, as president, he told The Wall Street Journal that it was interesting “for all Americans” to see “the way it was from a black person’s view…in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.” The endorsement helped catapult the hardworking wage earner to literary stardom. Mosley’s next book, Black Betty, sold more than 100,000 copies. And in 1995, Denzel Washington starred as Easy in a neo-noir film version of Devil in a Blue Dress.

Mosley is not the first black writer to portray blacks solving crimes in mystery novels. Chester Himes broke this ground, creating a detective series that featured two black cops in Harlem in the 1960s. But his New York City policemen, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, are insiders battling the mean streets on behalf of a meaner system. Mosley’s black characters are outsiders, who solve the riddle despite the stubborn barrier of prejudice, besting a system stacked against them. And like the heroes of Mosley’s comic book collection of more than 30,000, when they do rescue the vulnerable, they become larger than life. In outward appearance they may seem as ordinary as Clark Kent—flawed, conflicted, even weak. But by story’s end, they look as powerful as Superman.

I ask Mosley if he would ever write a novel with a central Jewish character. “Not if he wasn’t black,” he replies. I lift an eyebrow. “Hardly anybody in America has written about black male heroes,” he explains. “There are black male protagonists and black male supporting characters, but nobody else writes about black male heroes.” Mosley’s self-appointed job is to show these black heroes righting wrongs and protecting people, all in the name of justice, just like their white predecessors and contemporaries.

Black heroes also star in his science fiction. In “The Nig in Me,” a short story from Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World, an international plague unleashed by white supremacist bioterrorists ravages the world. Although its intent is to eradicate blacks, it ends up sparing only those with African genes. In an interview with, Mosley said that in Futureland, “I created a world where blacks are a very motivational force. In Star Wars, you have the opening scene with the tiny ship fighting the big ship. On both sides, all the people are white. To [George Lucas]—and I mean no disrespect—it was a white world. I don’t attack that. Instead, I say we should also make up our own worlds.”

12 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Walter Mosley

  1. pat says:

    Walter Mosely has bddn a long time favorite of mine. It’s good hearing how he got started.

  2. Grantman says:

    Looking forward to reading the article but your multiple pages format to gain ad impressions for your advertisers is a PIA. You should have a print friendly button. There are those of us who like to print out the articles and read them at our leisure and not online all the time.

  3. Dee Riley says:

    I loved this article about Walter Mosley. Although I have not read much of his work I love his idea and philosophy about writing. I read some pages from a book he wrote on the subject of writing and it is from that I feel motivated to continue writing in my own words and in my own style. For his wisdom and generous sharing of knowledge, ideas and encouragement I feel eternally grateful to him. I thank you for this article and for your interest in Walter Mosley as a man, a novelist and an artist.

  4. MonaLisa MackLamore says:

    On November 20, 2015 I was in the Library and saw the book “Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore” checked it out and was hooked! When I returned the book 2 days later. .. I check out three (3) more books on the 20th and completed them on the 25th at 11pm. I just could not put them down. I understand the people you write about as I am from L.A and from the same time. When will you have a reading in or around the area.

  5. Richard Ray Salazar says:

    I really appreciated this article about Walter Mosely.I also have a Jewish mother and Black father. I was adopted along with my sister by a black family.Coincedentally both psrents have Jewish parents.Growing up Yiddish names and phrases had become part of my casual conversation.At university I was to learn that I was not only Black, but Jewish, according to the Talmud Tradition.Since thst time I have studied both the Black and Jewish history and Cultures.The idea that one drop of Black blood makes you Black is aligned with the racist concept of race. I am very proud and celebrate my Black label,but I also appreciate and totally accept being Jewish.After all we are each a complex mixture of our parent’s biology and culture. Shalom!

  6. Mackie JV Blanton says:

    If it is indisputable that the origin of human beings arose in Africa, it is then also reasonable to assume that we all are at least ‘One Drop’ Black. So everyone is Black plus. Nonetheless, it’s our humanity that is significant.

  7. JN says:

    Shame on Walter Mosely! How dare he make a derogatory statement about the Congo and being a Congolese woman! Has he even ever been there? I doubt it. He’s simply bought into the stereotypes about Sub-Saharan Africa. Qiuite frankly, he seems narrow minded.

    1. Nat says:

      I don’t think he met that as an insult to Congolese women. He meant it as an insult to the imaginary person he was referring to.

  8. BFP says:

    I have never been to the Congo. But reading about this particular history of the Congo, I have read what many Congolese women have stated about their treatment. The Congolese (international?) organization “Women for Women” are valiantly and courageously fighting against the prevalance of ongoing “sexual violence and gender inequality” … maybe Mr Mosley was not making a derogatory statement but implying about the difficulties inflicted on the women.

  9. Mark Phillips says:

    Was a student of his when he taught at the Stone Coast Writer’s Seminar in Portland Maine. I very much enjoyed his writing advice.

  10. Mark Williams says:

    Every writer starts by experiencing life and language. The best can share their experience. Walter Mosley is among the best of the best.

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