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Known To Evil by Walter Mosley: A Book Review

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


The book, in paperback, is Known To Evil (A Leonid McGill Mystery) by Walter Mosley; it was published by the New American Library in 2011. We're looking at about 326 pages in length.


Now, as usual, it will not be my task to try to tell you whether or not the book is 'good' or 'bad,' does or does not 'work,' or anything like that. Mr. Mosley is a professional writer and I am not, therefore I have never been comfortable doing 'reviews' of that nature. I very much enjoyed the book and am unreservedly recommending it to all of you. As usual, I'm going to do my best to give you some indication of what you will be in for, should you decide to purchase the book from a bookstore or even check it out from your local public library, and read it.

I hope that when I am finished you will be able to have a clear idea whether or not this is the kind of book you might enjoy.

The first thing to say, I suppose---for those of you who are not familiar with Mr. Mosley and his work---is that he is an African-American novelist of prolific output with an apparently very broad range of interests, and who produces a fairly broad-ranging portfolio of fiction (mysteries, a little science fiction, what I would call, perhaps, 'melodramas,' etc.).

Mr. Mosley has two series of private detective novels that I know of, the Leonid McGill and the Easy Rawlins series. The book we're looking at today, is, as I said, a Leonid McGill adventure.

The second thing to say is to quote a laudatory blurb to be found on the front cover: "Walter Mosley is more than a writer: He's a phenomenon, the prolific overlord of noir crime fiction"---Houston Press.

Its the phrase noir crime fiction which interests me. Its interesting to compare the detective novels of Walter Mosley, an African-American writer, with those of James Ellroy, a White American writer covering some of the same terrain, "on the other side of the street," if you will.

James Ellroy's novels---some of which I have written about here on Hub Pages---are deliberately and self-consciously set in 1950s-early 1960s Los Angeles and they tend to be police procedurals. These books have, to me, the 'noir' feel; I feel as though I am watching a classic Humphrey Bogart film noir in my mind's eye, every time I read his work. By the way, you may recall that Ellroy's novel, LA Confidential, was made into a very good movie of the same title starring Russell Crowe.

Walter Mosley's mystery novels tend to be private investigator-driven. While they are deliberately and self-consciously set in the present, they nevertheless have an older, noir-ish feel. I guess that is because---in this particular Leonid McGill story anyway---one detects the familiar landscape of characters you might run across in a Humphrey Bogart, noir, private detective film story: the mysterious, powerful man with an equally mysterious, powerful desire; said powerful man's collection of hoods and misfits; trouble with the police, including a love-hate relationship with one particularly hard-charging but basically honest cop, or should I say "copper"?; the damsel in distress with 'secrets of her own'; the heroic private detective, driven by something more than money---call it honor or something like that; the hero's one or two shady friends who provide a very specialized assistance to the detective.

There is murder in this story and the question of who committed the homicide; and that makes Known To Evil a mystery, a 'whodunit.'

The third thing I want to say is that one of the reasons I am an admirer of his work is because of the fact that he is, in my opinion, a prose stylist. There is a kind of rhythm and musicality to his prose, which I can by no means say of every fiction author I've read. It is, for me, this rhythm and musicality of Mr. Mosley's prose that pulls me through as much as the actual plots of his stories.

The fiction writers whose work I most admire, all have this quality in the very way they set down words on the page. They include Elmore Leonard, John Grisham, and Mario Puzo (The Godfather novels), Philip K. Dick, Simon Brett (Charles Paris mysteries), among others.

I don't know how many of you out there are familiar with the fiction of Mario Puzo ("The Godfather" novels and movies), but for me its interesting to briefly compare and contrast the stylistic approaches of Mosley and the late Mario Puzo.

They are both prose stylists, whose elegant way with words pull me through the story as much as the actual plot. But they do it differently. To me, Puzo was a master of irony, the sidelong glance. I find this to be a very effective disbelief suspension device, Puzo's ability to deadpan-deliver the outrageous, the spectacular, the unbelievable. I have to say that a British writer, Simon Brett, is also extremely good at that kind of thing in his "Charles Paris" mysteries. This irony I speak of, is almost a comedic device, taking on the role of the 'straight man' playing off the hilarious punch line-grabbing partner.

But Walter Mosley, as a prose stylist, does not generally do irony, as far as I can tell. He is generally straightforward, somewhat earnest, and even romantic and philosophical. Generally people are what they appear to be head-on, with, of course, their layers. Situations are reacted to in the way they straightforwardly deserve to be reacted to---without any cute irony.

However I will say that Mr. Mosley did use the ironic voice in his novel, The Man in My Basement. In that novel a character walked onto the stage with a particular public face. This public face was not necessarily false or anything like that. But Mr. Mosley put this character into a position which, slowly, revealed something older and subterranean in the man, the core upon which he had built his public face. What makes this ironic, in my mind, was the contrast between the kinds of men we saw---the public man and the core man revealed---and which seemed to contradict each other while being the same man.

Does that make sense? If you looked at the man this way, you would see the usual public face. But if you happened to catch a glance at him from that angle... a glimmer of something else suggests itself. And so on. But, again, as far as I know (I have by no means read all of Walter Mosley's work), this is not his usual procedure.

The fourth thing I want to say is that Walter Mosley is an African-American writer, which shouldn't make any difference if you like good stories, but I thought I'd mention it; and his characters and settings are predominantly African-American, if that matters to you. I don't think that makes an appreciable difference as to the kind of story you're getting. However, it is interesting to note that Leonid McGill, the private detective in this book, is an African-American whose African-American father had been a revolutionary socialist more concerned with class than race.

And so I say---simply for your information---that we find Leonid McGill, an African-American man married to a white Swedish woman. Since I want to keep this review as concise as possible, we'll just say that Mr. McGill's domestic situation is interesting and leave it at that.

I only mention all of this because Leonid McGill's father---long dead---figures as a haunting presence throughout this book, and---if this book is representative---throughout the entire series: McGill's memories of him, the things his revolutionary father said, little life lessons passed along, and so forth.

And I suppose I should mention that Leonid McGill is a reformed/reforming (one step at a time), sort of organized crime/underworld 'fixer.' What is a fixer? Well, remember Quentin Tarantino's movie Pulp Fiction? Remember the scene when the two hit men (played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) were driving back to headquarters with the young man (apparently part of the organization) in the back seat? John Travolta's character, somehow, has occasion to accidentally blow the young man's head off, making a mess of the interior of the car.

They're criminals but they need help with this. They need help in getting rid of the body and the car. Enter the character played by Harvey Keitel, who masterfully orchestrated the cover up.

Anyway, that had been Leonid McGill's thing 'in another life,' as it were: helping other criminals get away with their crimes, which often included framing one set of criminals for crimes committed by another set of felons.

The only thing left to do now is give you a brief synopsis of the story, which, frankly, you can get anywhere.

Let's just quote the blurb from the back of this paperback:

"Alphonse Rinaldo isn't the kind of client private eye Leonid McGill can say no to under any circumstances. And its just a small favor anyway: a quick safe-check on a girl uptown. What McGill walks in on is a murder scene, and the girl he's after has vanished. But Rinaldo isn't about to let McGill walk away. He needs to find that girl---and fast. The only problem is, he doesn't want McGill to know why.

"That leaves McGill to strike a dangerous deal with himself. He'll find the girl, but not before he knows all there is to know, including what makes Rinaldo so interested in her. He never should have asked, because the answers are sending him down New York's darkest streets, and putting in harm's way everything he cherishes: his family, his friends, and his very soul."

You know, I have to say that that dramatic description is not too far away from the truth of what happens in the story. There is a bit of the usual promotional hyperbole, of course, which is to be expected. For instance, I don't how Leonid McGill's "very soul" is ever imperiled. And the reason that "Alphonse Rinaldo" doesn't want to tell McGill why he wants the girl found "---and fast" turns out to be not that big a secret; that is to say, it was a secret that didn't need to be kept---everything turns out to be quite proper and above board, in terms of Rinaldo's 'intentions' toward the young damsel in distress.

Okay, I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.

Thank you so much for reading.


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