Walter Mosley – Little Scarlet

Read Oct 2015
For such a plot-driven genre, often the most interesting elements of hard boiled crime fiction tend are the characterisation and social critique. 

This is absolutely the case with Little Scarlet, one in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels – a hard boiled private detective series with the fundamental twist that Rawlins is black.

The twisting plot, as always in this genre, is constantly shifting. It’s the LA riots, it appears that a white man killed a black woman at the tail end of the riots, and the police ask Easy to look into it. It gradually transpires that the white man was not involved and it’s a serial killer called Harold who is killing young black women, driven by his Mum’s history as a black woman who tried to to pretend she was white.

It’s a strong plot, written in classic hard boiled style. But what matters most is the characterisation and the social critique.

Easy Rawlins is a powerful protagonist. He does everything you want from a PI in a novel like this – he’s terse, he’s a loner, he’s prone to violence, and he struggles between the woman and family he loves and his desires for others.There is a moral ambiguity to Easy, who wants to do the right thing, but often that clashes with his desires on the one hand, and with what society – and the law in particular – thinks is the right thing, on the other. Hard boiled heroes are often drawn with this kind of stereotyped masculinity, and although Easy fits the category, it’s hard not to like him. 

The social critique in the Rawlin’s series is what makes Mosley stand out. Easy is black and the ongoing theme running through the series is the inequality and injustice experienced by African Americans in mid-twentieth century US. It’s present in the police force, of course, and their treatment of people, but also evident in the politics and social life throughout the novels.

What Mosely does really well in Little Scarlet in particular is highlight the anger and emotion that racial inequality leads to, and the way it manifests itself as major events like the LA riots and ongoing incidents of ‘resentiment’ – where suppressed and sometimes unarticulated feelings occasionally burst out – that are part of the everyday lives of many of the African Americans that feature throughout the book.

Racial injustice plays a causal role in everything from the race riots and the killer’s motives right through to the way Easy is treated by the police and the life chances of a young woman that Easy falls for.

It’s this – the combination of plot, character and critique – that makes Mosely a powerful novel.

Richard Ford – The Sportswriter

Read October 2015

With its cynical, insightful and aloof protagonist, The Sportswriter is the first in the series of Frank Bascombe novels by Richard Ford. It covers a long Easter weekend when, in fact, very little happens, though a short term relationship with Vicki breaks down after a trip to Detroit and a friend, Walter, commits suicide.

The big events of Frank’s life seem to have taken place prior to the weekend and we learn about much of it through his reflections on the past and how it’s affected him: Ralph, one of his three children died; he let his relationship with his wife (known here only as X) collapse in the aftermath of the death; and, after a promising start, his career as a novelist is cut short when he chooses to become a sportswriter instead.

The core of the book is about Frank’s thoughts and the way he relates to and understands people. He is cynical, diffident, slightly lonely, though not necessarily unhappy. Throughout he offers remarkable and original insights into his own and others’ behaviour.

Interestingly, Frank is portrayed as a pretty average suburban American, not unlike Updike’s Rabbit. He is both unremarkable in his normality but also unique in his profound reflections. It is this, more than anything, that makes this such a good novel. Through Frank, Ford manages to demonstrate the individuality that underpins every apparently ‘normal’ life.

I can’t say I loved every bit of this book, though there are long sections of brilliance and Frank is a great American character who it is both entertaining and educational to spend time with. I know that I’ll be reading more about Frank Bascombe because his story, his spot-on reflections and his slightly wayward approach to life draws you in.

Richard Ford on the unknowability of the mind 

I do not think, in any event, it’s a good idea to want to know what people are thinking (that would disqualify you as a writer right there) … People never tell the truth anyway. And most people’s minds never contain much worth reporting, in which case they just make something up that’s patently ridiculous instead of saying the truth – namely, I was thinking of nothing. The other side, of course, is that you will run the risk of being told the very truth of what someone is thinking, which can turn out to be something you don’t want to hear, or that makes you mad, and ought to be kept private anyway…. Things just come into your mind on their own and aren’t your fault. So I learned this all those years ago – that you don’t need to held responsible for what you think, and that by and large you don’t have any business knowing what other people think.

Richard Ford, The Sportswriter 

Jerome Ferrari – The sermon on the fall of Rome

Read September 2015
Given the cover blurb I ought to have liked this book, with its comparisons to European novels of big ideas, like Satre or Camus. But in fact I found if very hard going.
It is primarily the story of Libero and Mattieu who give up their studies in Paris and return to Corsica to run (and turn around) a struggling tourist bar. They make money, drink a lot, have plenty of women, but as the story progresses the debauchery grows, ultimately causing the pair’s dream to collapse.
As the author makes clear, it’s an analogy of St Augustine’s sermon on the mount, where he sets out the inevitable corruption of man.

There were some good passages but, in the end, the book is too much like magical realism for me (and in fact a comparison is made to Marquez on the cover which is ought to have paid more attention to). We never get under the skin of the characters – even the two main characters remain very distant, let alone the side characters which are sketches, even caricatures – and the focus on big philosophical and historical themes means the psychological analysis that the novel form does so well it just not here, making this are difficult read.