Known to Evil
Original Airdate: May 23, 2010
About the Author
About this Book
Host's ImpressionsMr. Mosley, as a person, was a larger than life personality, and great fun as a result. The novel is hard-boiled detective story-telling that is simultaneously retro and contemporary, which is an impressive feat. We begin—especially if we are first time readers of Mr. Mosley—with some trepidation at first, but the narrative soon wins us over. It is impressively marked by moving, time after time, into exactly the next thing in the plot that we think it won’t.
TranscriptAlberto Rios: Welcome to Books & Co. I’m your host, Alberto Rios. We're joined today by noted novelist Walter Mosley, talking about his latest book, Known to Evil. The second installment in his new Leonid McGill detective series, published by Riverhead Books.
Walter Mosley: How are you doing?
Alberto Rios: I’m doing well. As a novelist and writer, you do a little bit of everything. I don't know where we can come up with just a focus that would send us to your single book, but we have to do it. You've written on all sorts of -- I just want to make a nod to that. You've written books on how to write about writing, science fiction, fiction, nonfiction, all kinds of things you have another famous detective we can reference, but your detective fiction is some of the best being written today.
Walter Mosley: Well, thank you.
Alberto Rios: You're welcome. Leonid McGill is a new character in the pantheon of detectives. He is a character who enjoys, evolved from, was there in New York City. This is a new landscape for you.
Walter Mosley: Yeah, well, it's a new landscape for me to write about. I've lived in New York for the last 30 years. I have written about New York now and again but this is a very serious endeavor.
Alberto Rios: How do you think that writing about New York is different from writing about L.A.? We know there are distinctions between the east and the west.
Walter Mosley: I don't think it's different.
Alberto Rios: Okay.
Walter Mosley: When you write a novel, I don't know, depends on who you are really. When I’m writing a book it ends up about character. If you read the first couple of chapters in this book, Leonid is at home with his wife and three children, one of whom is his, two his wife says are his but aren't, and he knows it. They are in this house and there's a family dialogue going on, a family drama. It could be anywhere. It could be in Phoenix or L.A. or New York. When I write about New York, and Leonid is on the subway or Fifth Avenue or Park Avenue or the Bronx, yeah, you get a feeling of a different place and I talk about that place there but a lot of what informs the character, well, that's – the human drama is fairly universal.
Alberto Rios: And exciting, I think you do a good job. I’m wondering if that precision of place -- what that has to do with the character. I think it's exciting to watch it in action. You're so careful to tell us where we are, in the same way that the character, Leonid McGill, is so careful to notice the people he encounters.
Walter Mosley: I think that's what people do, though. One thing when you're writing fiction, because you can't really -- you don't have enough time and pages to really create a place in the space. It's not like you're a painter or even a filmmaker. When a filmmaker designs a scene, you would have to watch that scene a couple dozen times before you saw everything they have set up to inform you where you are and how you are. If you spent eight pages describing a room, people would stop reading the book. You have to have the narrator; whoever that is, gives you some information which will cause you to create the rest of the space on your own. So you talk about, well, you know, what's it like being in the no. 1 train going uptown. What are the two or three people in the train that you pick out to inform that space, et cetera. When you do that, then the reader actually becomes the writer.
Alberto Rios: That's a great way to think of that. Leonid as a character, so he's got this place, New York City. And we're being moved around in it. He tends to notice the most interesting things. He's got a kind of hierarchy of things he notices. He notices women and what they wear. And he notices men and often how tall they are, their height. Do you want to talk a little bit about these distinctions of what he notices?
Walter Mosley: He also notices how tall women are. When a woman is his height, he's very happy. Leonid is a little under 5'6", he weighs somewhere around 175, he really is a light heavyweight. He's all -- because he's so short, people think he's a short, stocky guy. He has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder over being shorter than everybody else. This is one of the things that evolved in the character when I first started writing about him. He's going to have a chip on his shoulder. And this is the smallest chip on his shoulder. He was abandoned by his communist father when he was 12 years old. His mother died of heartbreak soon after he left. He's been on his own and mistreated his whole life. He's a detective who works for criminals, planting false evidence on other people to save people from getting prosecuted. He's -- so his height and his power are two of the major things about his life.
Alberto Rios: And that chip on his shoulder gave had aim skill see the working with criminals that helps him be a better detective.
Walter Mosley: It helps him and doesn't help him. If you were standing in front of Leonid McGill and there were two guys at your side, both of them holding guns and you said to Leonid, I’m going to kill you, the first thing he would do is smile. He can't help it, because he's ready to die. He's ready to fight at any moment. Okay. But you better put those bullets in the right place because if you don't hit me just right I’m going to kill you. That's what's going to happen. This is who he is. He's a guy, ever since he's been a preadolescent, putting his life on the line.
Alberto Rios: You have that wonderful moment where he gives us almost a living will where he thinks he's about to be killed and he starts to think of who's going take care of what. He comes to some sort of peaceful moment in that, and he really is ready to die. So that's not something that's hyperbole.
Walter Mosley: He has grits with butter, fried eggs and a fried pork chop. He's not going to die of a heart attack and he knows it. The only reason he doesn't smoke is because in his job he's got to be able to run sometimes, and smoking stops you from being able to do that. He lives on the other side of the street from you but he's the guy you need when you're in trouble. He says, I’m willing to put myself on the line for you. You know, that's a big thing.
Alberto Rios: He does exactly that. He has a fierce loyalty to the simple thing. Once he says, I’m going to do it. He does not stop until it's done. That's an extraordinary voyage in and of itself. The vagaries of how a case unfolds are myriad. All sorts of things are going on. He seems to be able to keep a focus for himself and the reader that guides the reader through that. It's a fragmented voyage. There's no single one narrative. Each time we think we're going to go to the next character or next thing, you surprise us by giving us the encounter we don't want to have, because he does not want to have it. Every single time it's a wonderful act of plotting as a writer. But every time there's a break, and it's a very fast-reading book, very well paced, every time we start up again we're right where we don't want to be. It's an exciting way to keep us all as readers engaged.
Walter Mosley: A long time ago it became apparent to me that men and women live different kinds of lives. Women kind of live that same kind of life continually. Men start off one way and become something else. In the beginning men are linear. I have a job, I go to the job, I do the job, I get whatever rewards and I bring them home. That's it, that's my job. The woman is talking to her mother and her husband's mother and dealing with the kids getting to school and she's got a job of her own and doing – so she's juggling six or seven balls. When the guy gets older and life catches up to him, he realizes he can no longer be linear, that he has to do many things at once. Leonid, in any book, has five cases going. You know, there's some person he did something terrible to in the past and sent him to prison and he's become their benefactor. His son is a lovable sociopath, he's always in trouble. Then these people of incredible power and people from his past, criminals he used to work with who expect him to still work for him. All of this is going on all at once. To me, this seems like the kind of life this guy would be living and the kind of life we live. We don't live a life where we take one step and then another step. If we do, somebody's protecting us with how complex our lives really are. They are saving us from having to deal with that.
Alberto Rios: It's very poetic. It's poetic movement, not moving linearly, very much a prose endeavor. But instead, having these things accrue and adding up to movement.
Walter Mosley: Yes.
Alberto Rios: We have him thinking all kinds of things and we're following him. And not of least of which, we don't expect the narrative to possibly be successful because he's got a headache, he's doing one thing or another, he's got this life that is difficult for us to imagine, you know, surviving even a day.
Walter Mosley: But it's completely possible for us to imagine. You're having -- you've promised that you're going to go to the soccer game of your son and you have a migraine. Even driving the car, you know, to the field is a danger but you do it. And I think that when you worry that he won't do it, you can identify with the issues that Leonid has, I think, as a detective. You can identify your own life with what's going on with Leonid.
Alberto Rios: I'd like to take a moment to remind our viewers you're watching Books & Co. I’m your host Alberto Rios and we're joined by noted novelist Walter Mosley talking about his book, Known to Evil, the new Leonid McGill detective – the second one in the series. In terms of series, we've said it several times. I’m just curious whether you find this word series freeing or a trap. You have worked with another long-term character.
Walter Mosley: Easy Rawlins. To some degree, Fearless Jones and Socrates.
Alberto Rios: The paradigm gives you -- certainly information to the reader. Do we learn from the characters? Is that freeing to you as a writer or do you feel it's a trap, that now you have to write within the parameters of how this character lives. You can't change in a big way.
Walter Mosley: Well, you know, if you're writing the brothers Karamazov, you're writing about these characters and on page 800 you're writing about these characters. Do you feel trapped? I feel to a great degree the series is a long arc in which you see changes. One of the problems in the mystery or the crime genre is people start to write about a serious character and they get stuck with who the character is. I started with Easy Rawlins from 1948 to 1967. He had children, he had friends, some lived, some died, he changed to a great degree. In this series, the Leonid McGill series is even tighter. I believe at the end of the series you could shove them all together and make it one big giant novel. You will see the arc through the whole thing, where he's going and who he is.
Alberto Rios: He's a harder detective than perhaps what you've done before. Leonid is the first hard-boiled detective I’ve written.
Alberto Rios: Marlowe from chandler, Easy Rawlins, neither of them is hard boiled. They are not of Daschiell Hammett hard boiled is the continental law. I hit him with the door repeatedly. That's a hard-boiled line. That's the kind of thing that Leonid does. He causes pain and takes pain. And he does it and he's the final word. He leads with his chin; he says my chin is made out of iron. He's a hard-boiled character.
Alberto Rios: He takes pain and causes pain even in the comfortable familial surroundings with his kids, his wife. So it's pain nonstop. Hard boiled is perfectly – a perfectly wonderful way to describe that. Is it referred to as noir writing?
Walter Mosley: Noir is more of chandler's writing. It's poetry, beautiful poetry of how this slumming angel goes through this world. In Easy's world, he's kind of your guide through this world. You know, Leonid is your Sherpa. He's carrying everything, including you, up the mountain it's different.
Alberto Rios: It's different, but he's capable. I don't think we are in fear of him not being able to do it. You instill that in us even as we read these frailties at every page. I keep thinking of this terrible headache he keeps having which would stop me cold. It seems to be energy in a weird way for him.
Walter Mosley: But it's an interesting thing. Sometimes you have to deal with pain when you're doing something. If you have a headache, but your friend has a multi-fracture on their leg and you have to get them to the hospital, you're going to do that. The headache's not going get in your way. You're not going to tell the friend with a bone poking out of their skin, I can't help you, I have a headache. If you do, there's something wrong with you. Leonid has to get over the limitations. What I would do is make the limitations that he faces real. I want to make the life he's walking through a pedestrian life. As he faces those parts of his life, we can identify with him and see what it's like to be this guy and feel what it's like to be this guy. Because a lot of us have a really high moral standard for ourselves and luckily are not in a situation to answer for that. Leonid has a high moral standard and does have to answer for it.
Alberto Rios: Repeatedly, as with the door hitting us. He seems to me so often, well positioned -- you strike the idea of having to learn how to deal with pain is maybe not what we're told by advertising, by the world around us. We're being given medications for everything and promises that this will take care of that. This is maybe noir in the 21st century, second decade. You are giving us a voice that is familiar on the one hand -- we've got some lessons that we've learned certainly last century, certainly post-9/11 and so on -- but we've also got this relearning we have to do. We seem to have to always relearn.
Walter Mosley: There are two things about Leonid. The first is he's a boxer. The first thing a boxer learns is it hurts. A guy's going hit you and it's going to hurt. You just have to take that. You have to act, it's a counterintuitive way that you act. The more he hurts you, the harder you fight. The more you get hit, the more you hit back. There's no running in boxing, you're in a cage, there's no getting away. The second thing is Leonid for me is a metaphor for America. In the last 40 years America has done a lot of things in a lot of places all over the world and inside of America. And a couple of years ago we decided we're going to start to do right. Now we're going to start doing right. That is a very difficult, very painful almost impossible task we're facing. Leonid is the same thing. He's been a criminal for nearly 40 years and now he's trying to do the right thing in the world. This is almost impossible. We look at what he's done. At one point he says, how do we make up for it? He says, we can't make up for it and we can't pay for it. All we can do is do our best to do what's right and hope that that's good enough. And that becomes the thing and that's where America is today. You can't make up for the people who are dead and in all these countries all over the world but we have to do what we can do.
Alberto Rios: That sort of metaphor -- that's exactly how I read it. I -- this idea of hitting him and getting hit, it's just another way to say work. He's got to work to make things happen in the world. One of the things I most enjoyed, it's one of the first books I’ve read contemporarily that mentions all sorts of 21st century things. President Obama, laptop computers, Tiger Woods, and so forth. But it doesn't mention them to talk about them. That's part of the fabric of the everyday now. And that's a new thing. A next time for us as country, you know, those things are now behind us. They are not ahead of us, we're not struggling to work on those things.
Walter Mosley: I wrote the Easy Rawlins series as homage to my father's generation. They went to Central Avenue, they fostered blues, R&B and jazz, they moved us forward into the future. And nothing was written about them, nothing was written about them. I felt like I needed to write about those people's history in order to have the story at least somewhere on the shelves. But Leonid McGill, it's my story. Leonid McGill is my century and my world. That's a very important thing to me, to be able to make that move.
Alberto Rios: You're speaking about that in personal terms. I wonder if you might speak about your own background as you come to this. Your father is African-American.
Walter Mosley: And my mother is Jewish. She died a year ago. Yeah, and it's -- it's the funniest thing, I talk to people and they say to me, what's it like to be white and black? And I go, my father's black and my mother's Jewish. Which part of that is white?
Walter Mosley: And people get really unhappy at me about saying that because, you know, it doesn't fit a temporary perception in the world. There's a momentary lull of anti-Semitism in America and therefore Jews are white. Same thing happened in Germany before World War II. I come from a family that's so similar on both sides. My uncle Haime and aunt told me about people getting burned and treated as a different race and separated and really mistreated. My father is telling the same stories to them. The stories would be going back and forth. There were the same stories, it's kind of wonderful. I have this history, this kind of worldwide history of humanity that comes out of oppression. So people tell stories that sound awful except for everybody's laughing, because this is the way you survive. Not only by staying alive but laughing while you're getting there.
Alberto Rios: You say it's the same stories, it's similar to how you described writing about something in New York or L.A.
Walter Mosley: Uh-huh.
Alberto Rios: That there is a connection.
Walter Mosley: Oh, yeah.
Alberto Rios: I think that's what's at the heart of certainly all of this. Just to ask you one last question about Leonid, he then as an African-American, clearly he has no problem as an African-American man moving forward. Does he become more of a character than a personal extension?
Walter Mosley: It's interesting. He has no confusion but the world is very confused about who he is and what he is. Every door he walks into he's somebody else. He has to be aware of how he's being perceived. Each door he's walking into. Is it because of his age, size, class? Do people like him, hate him, love him? Does any of this have anything to do with him? And yes, all characters are characters. You'd have to be crazy and look and say, look at this black man in the mirror. You'd have to be insane. On the bottom he's a character. But when he goes out into the world he's a thousand different things. Easy was only one thing, maybe two, but that's all. Leonid, every door he walks into he's somebody else.
Alberto Rios: With that, I thank you very much. I enjoyed reading the book and I hope you have a good visit here in Phoenix.
Walter Mosley: Thank you very much.
Alberto Rios: We've been talking today to Walter Mosley about his book, Known to Evil. I’m Alberto Rios for Books & Co. Thank you for joining us today. We hope you join us again very soon when we're back with another good book.