Walter Mosley’s The Long Fall is a hard-boiled detective novel — a lean and unadorned book about folks who trade stacks of cash for "favors" and make decisions with handguns. It’d fit right in with Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series (Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death and others) if President Obama didn’t happen to show up on page two. Seedy, post-war Los Angeles has been replaced with present-day New York. Mosley's even traded in the beloved Rawlins character for an aging private detective reminiscent of the author himself.
The Easy Rawlins novels were pitch-perfect noir, tough little books worthy of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. But they set themselves apart by weaving social commentary into the fabric of suspenseful, entertaining stories. Published in the early ’90s, Mosley’s novels about mid-century Los Angeles brimmed with racial tension that was entirely relevant in the context of Rodney King and the ensuing riots. Then-President Bill Clinton championed Mosley’s work. The series eventually ran its course (11 novels in all) and Mosley retired it a couple of years ago.
The start of another string of mysteries surrounding a private detective, The Long Fall is narrated by Leonid McGill. McGill’s an aging, out-of-shape boxer with thick hands and an even thicker jaw; an African-American man old enough to remember life before the Civil Rights Movement, and who now lives under a black president. The world's changing and he’s just trying to keep up. The Long Fall follows McGill as he attempts to become a legitimate private detective and stop doing "favors" for criminals. When McGill realizes the high-end client for whom he works might be involved in a string of murders, he's faced with both a moral dilemma and a mystery.
McGill makes more than a few missteps along the way, though he's committed to an upright path. He broods about death and then slips on the bathroom floor; he reads his son’s e-mails and worries about vulgar slang. In short, McGill has the sort of concerns that a man Mosley’s age might have. The Long Fall is a book about coming to terms with the world as much as it is about solving a mystery.
Not everything has changed with the start of a new series, especially the conventional tropes of crime fiction. Some moments seem clearly dated, as when Tony “The Suit” puts the squeeze on McGill, but the novel is quick to explain that “It [isn’t] 2008 everywhere in America.” Much like the occasional criminal who seems fresh out of 1950, racist characters and a few slurs still show up on the page. The Long Fall doesn’t have a post-racial view of the United States, nor is it willing to cast a singular judgment on today's race issues. It's the beginning of an open-ended tale that could take the shape of our own unpredictable future.
The Long Fall by Walter Mosley. Riverhead. 306 pp. $25.95.