March 20, 2012

Walter Mosley - elements of a style

Walter Mosley's When the Thrill is Gone is the third of his series featuring black private-eye L.T. McGill. Mosley is probably best known for his first series about Easy Rawlins, the first of which - Devil in a Blue Dress - was made into a film starring Denzel Washington.

Mosley is interesting because his style is both sophisticated and crude at the same time. It's sophisticated in that his characters are all individuated clearly and seem to have lives outside of the stories that Mosley tells about them. His style is crude to the extent that he uses dialogue tags very oddly. Take the following few examples:

“It’ll be eleven years before I put him in the ring,” the brightskinned young thief opined ... "

I hailed a cab and we piled in. Tally gave the driver his address after we both closed our doors.
“I don’t go to Brooklyn,” the foreign white man told us.

“A message?” this middle-aged woman from the middle of Middle America said.

“Hi, Dad,” the dark-olive-skinned Asian girl said.

 At one level you can read these as adding more information so that the reader gets a clearer picture of the individual in question. But on the other hand, when reading, these descriptions get in the way of your progress. Many if not most manuals on writing suggest that you use a straightforward 'he said', 'she said', the reason being that the reader glosses over the tags very quickly, simply taking orientation from them as to who is speaking.

By adding the adjectival descriptions Mosley complicates the reading process, often to no purpose. Early in the current book, for example, McGill, writing in the first person, describes a character he's interviewing as 'the retiree', 'the father' and 'the Merchant Marine', all in the space of a page and a half. If they were used ironically it might be different - for example, if the line was, "'I hate boats,' the Merchant Marine said."

But usually that's not the case.

So as you read these tags you're having to work harder than usual, without gaining that much benefit from the work. Would it have hurt that much if the line above had read:

"I don't go to Brooklyn," the cabbie told us.

This throws the emphasis on the dialogue itself, which is strong enough to take the weight. Adding 'the foreign white man told us' provides more detail, but doesn't qualify the fact that he doesn't go to Brooklyn in any meaningful way.

Of course Mosley's books have a lot going for them despite this - to me - odd tic. McGill is a strong, principled character and the family he's made for himself is constantly interesting and problematic. The plot itself is not exactly serpentine, but Mosley tells it in such a way that it seems more complex: there are sub-plots, for example, involving his sons and an old family friend that interfere with the resolution of the main storyline. They provide a richness and depth to the milieu that Mosley creates.

In the end, personally, I think I prefer the Easy Rawlins series because Rawlins himself is more engaging and straightforward, and there's a social history in the books as they take place over a period of years in Los Angeles, allowing Mosley to capture the changes in society happening during the last forty years or so.

But Mosley has continued to develop as a writer since his first books, both in his style and his subject matter, so he remains an interesting and influential writer in the genre of crime writing.

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