EVERYTHING ABOUT WALTER MOSLEY’S sixth-floor walk-up in New York City’s Greenwich Village says bohemian. The furniture is mix and match, the cramped office piled with books and cartons containing his collection of comics, the walls decorated with his own delicate line drawings. Nothing suggests that this is the apartment of the newest hot-property mystery writer. Even Mosley, 40, talks about his life before this latest incarnation as if it were only yesterday. Until he sold his first novel three years ago, he had been a painter, a potter and a computer programmer. “I was happy,” he says, “but I was lost.”
Now he’s found. With the publication of White Butterfly, his third novel featuring Easy Rawlins, a black detective on the streets of South Central L.A. in the ’40s and ’50s, Mosley fans are raving. “As rich as the best of Chandler and Ross MacDonald,” wrote Dick Adler of the Chicago Tribune, adding that the book “grabs you by the elbow from the getgo.” There’s talk in Hollywood of putting the private eye on the big screen, and Danny Glover, Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes are all interested. And to top that, Bill Clinton recently told reporters he’s read all of Mosley’s mysteries. “The fact that Clinton’s reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and likes my books,” says Mosley, “makes me happy.”
Mosley believes he has opened a window on the black experience in white America. In Butterfly—set in the jazzy, post-World War II Watts of juke joints, good-time girls and working-class folks—Easy is called in by police to help find a serial killer; though three black women had already been murdered, the cops only take notice when a white woman dies. For Mosley, the story’s the thing; messages about racism are secondary. “I love these characters,” he says, talking as if they were in the room with him. “If I do it right, they tell a story which has all the political and social fabric entwined around them.” Mosley says that at readings across the country, blacks have been recognizing their lives in his books and saying, “Wow, this is the way things are.” And that, he says, makes him “feel connected in a way that I never was before.”
Mosley shares with his alter ego an intimate knowledge of life in South Central, where he grew up the only child of a white mother, Ella, and a black father, Leroy. They met in the public-school system, where she worked as a personnel clerk at the Board of Education and he as a custodian. (Both went on to become supervisors.) He absorbed storytelling skills from both sides of the family—Ella’s, with their “old Jewish stories about the czars and living in Russia,” he says, and Leroy’s, with their Texas tales of “violence and partying and eating and drinking.”
In 1971 he briefly attended Goddard College in Vermont; he got his bachelor’s degree from Johnson State College in Vermont in 1977. He tried graduate studies in political science at the University of Massachusetts, didn’t like it and moved to Boston to be with Joy Kellman, a dancer and choreographer he’d met in 1979. Walter was attracted to Joy, now 41, immediately; she was less sure. “He was just aggressive,” she says with a laugh. “But soon I realized there’s more to this guy than I’m seeing on the surface.” In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he drifted from one odd job to the next; for a while he sold his own pottery, and he once took a stab at the catering business. The couple moved to New York City in 1982 and married five years later.
In Manhattan, working as a computer consultant for Mobil Oil, Mosley realized that he wanted to discuss books and movies with his colleagues, but “people would say, ‘Walter, we don’t want to hear what you have to talk about, we want to work,’ ” he remembers. Reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple changed his life. “I’d read a lot of the French—Camus and all that—and I love their writing. But that voice, that narrative—I couldn’t write like that,” he says. “Then when I read Walker, I thought, ‘Oh! I could do this.’ ” So he started writing at nights and on weekends.
After a couple of years, he finished a novel, Gone Fishin’, but couldn’t find a publisher. In 1989 he showed the first Easy Rawlins book, Devil in a Blue Dress, to a teacher at City College of New York—where he was studying writing—who immediately passed it on to his agent. Within months Mosley had a book deal and a modest advance. Devil came out in 1990 and his second novel, A Red Death, a year later. They weren’t big sellers, but Mosley was happy to be making a living at writing. Says Joy: “I always knew Walter would find his niche.”
Mosley is now working on a novel about a character who once played with legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson, and he has a title—Black Betty—but no plot for his fourth Easy Rawlins mystery. Postsuccess, he and Joy have no big changes planned, except maybe to move to a larger apartment. But old habits die hard. “We have such artist personalities,” says Mosley, “that we always think we’re going to be broke.”