Known to Evil
Riverhead: 326 pp., $25.95
Walter Mosley’s last novel, “The Long Fall,” was the detective fiction equivalent of a system reboot, a riff on the author’s favorite brand of story. Instead of Los Angeles, we have New York; instead of the past, there is only the present (or, at least, the 2008 variety of present). Instead of Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins stumbling through tumultuous social change with lethal sidekicks and an unorthodox family, meet Leonid Trotter McGill, “a survivor from the train wreck of the modern world” who stumbles through his own prolonged internal crises backed by a lethal sidekick and a most dysfunctional family.
There are similarities -- yes, striking ones. That is beside the point. Mosley’s sense of story is so fundamentally sound, so in tune with the wants and needs of a crime novel that plot points reveal themselves as if by instinct or by feel. As evident in “The Long Fall” and the series’ new second installment, “Known to Evil,” the reader witnesses a calibrated act of narrative sedimentation. Once the architecture, as grand and opulent as the Tesla building where Leonid keeps an office, is in place, then the real, twinned pleasures assert themselves: Leonid’s continued search for redemption amid corruption, and the nuggets of wisdom seeping through, sentence by sentence.
What’s clear from the outset of “Known to Evil” is that it douses the possibility of prolonged political discourse, tantalizingly hinted at in the previous book. McGill is a black man navigating racism, classism and economic recession, but Big Themes (and a black president) are mere afterthoughts.
Instead the focus is more timeless and thus more urgent: A mysterious flower bouquet appears at dinner that could belong to Leonid’s discarded lover or perhaps to the new love of his beautiful Scandinavian wife of 23 years, Katrina; a late-night phone call comes from a powerful man on that most primitive of quests, to find a missing young woman. A meeting set up at a quiet, out-of-the-way cemetery turns violent when a called-in favor produces untold carnage at a hit man’s behest. A father forges new links in relations with his oldest, taciturn son Dmitri, whose troubled first love poses dangerous consequences not just for himself but for his family.
Towering over all these pointillist concerns is Leonid’s larger struggle, depicted with phrases so choice and measured it’s impossible to refrain from quoting. The surprise late-night phone call displaces Leonid, making him “another man, or maybe the same man in a similar but vastly different world: the working-poor lottery winner who suddenly one day realizes that riches have turned his blood into vinegar.”
Though short and middle-aged and “devious and underhanded from time to time,” he knows the real rules of brawling, a sport he excels at: “What beats a fighter with a good plan isn’t power or a lucky punch . . . no, what beats a journeyman pugilist is the onslaught of implacable attack.”
There are opportunities aplenty to repair his damaged marriage or make amends to those he has wronged, but Leonid won’t apologize for not progressing in the linear fashion Americans expect of “sports and war and sex -- even love. That’s what they think about when somebody’s credit goes bad or there’s an accident on the road: somebody veered off the straight and narrow.” Instead he tips his hat to Einstein: “The line between A and B is questionable at best, and there’s no such thing as a straight line.”
The net effect of so much chewy language is to slow the readers, to make them savor Mosley’s aphorisms and witticisms and to understand that every word is there for a reason, that it has a purpose beyond facilitating the momentum of the narrative.
Even when Leonid isn’t paying attention, we notice when Katrina’s sincere reconciliation attempts are rebuffed, repeating a decades-old cycle, when the easygoing charm of their youngest and most criminally minded son, Twill, teeters on the edge of disaster until the last possible moment, or when the subtle machinations of secret power assert their will regardless of individual push-back.
Mosley’s supreme gifts, however, can’t quite hide some of the seams. His hit man, Hush, could be a descendant of Easy’s hair-trigger partner in unpredictability, Mouse, and the femme at the center of Leonid’s muck-ridden investigation is a hipper, more naive cousin of similar ladies from Easy’s detective past. And the city, with its foggy corners and open-all-night diners, seems to float on top of contemporary New York City: of a piece, but never quite belonging to the uber-gentrified Manhattan playground still in the throes of a decayed, investment bank-drunk boom culture.
Such is Mosley’s point. Regardless of the canvas, be it contemporary or historical, noirish or light, realistic or fantastic, the detective novel works best when it molds and reshapes truth into something larger and less bound to common problems.
Like the Easy Rawlins novels, Mosley’s new detective canvas informs us about what it means to be a man of endless struggle, even knowing that “once you’ve seen the battlefield, you can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist.” Leonid will continue to dig holes so deep they threaten to bury him and take him past even the lowest standards he might set for himself, because he knows that by remaining “a free floating radical that sometimes tended the connection between the lightness and the dark,” his raison d'être will remain, and we too will keep revisiting his ongoing quest.