For one of his classes, he had written a novella featuring a man named Ezekiel Rawlins. He flung his inaugural work toward the publishing giants of New York. Fifteen agents rejected his work. So he returned to the library. After reading Graham Greene’s screenplay, The Third Man, he decided to rework the Easy Rawlins story into a mystery novel. Seeking editorial guidance, he gave the manuscript to Tuten, his CCNY advisor. Tuten was so impressed that he showed it to his own agent, Gloria Loomis, who also liked the novel, and W.W. Norton & Company published Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990. There was critical acclaim, but it was muted. Two more novels in the Easy Rawlins series followed—A Red Death in 1991 and White Butterfly in 1992. Then during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was spotted with a copy of Devil in a Blue Dress and later, as president, he told The Wall Street Journal that it was interesting “for all Americans” to see “the way it was from a black person’s view…in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.” The endorsement helped catapult the hardworking wage earner to literary stardom. Mosley’s next book, Black Betty, sold more than 100,000 copies. And in 1995, Denzel Washington starred as Easy in a neo-noir film version of Devil in a Blue Dress.
Mosley is not the first black writer to portray blacks solving crimes in mystery novels. Chester Himes broke this ground, creating a detective series that featured two black cops in Harlem in the 1960s. But his New York City policemen, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, are insiders battling the mean streets on behalf of a meaner system. Mosley’s black characters are outsiders, who solve the riddle despite the stubborn barrier of prejudice, besting a system stacked against them. And like the heroes of Mosley’s comic book collection of more than 30,000, when they do rescue the vulnerable, they become larger than life. In outward appearance they may seem as ordinary as Clark Kent—flawed, conflicted, even weak. But by story’s end, they look as powerful as Superman.
I ask Mosley if he would ever write a novel with a central Jewish character. “Not if he wasn’t black,” he replies. I lift an eyebrow. “Hardly anybody in America has written about black male heroes,” he explains. “There are black male protagonists and black male supporting characters, but nobody else writes about black male heroes.” Mosley’s self-appointed job is to show these black heroes righting wrongs and protecting people, all in the name of justice, just like their white predecessors and contemporaries.
Black heroes also star in his science fiction. In “The Nig in Me,” a short story from Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World, an international plague unleashed by white supremacist bioterrorists ravages the world. Although its intent is to eradicate blacks, it ends up sparing only those with African genes. In an interview with Africana.com, Mosley said that in Futureland, “I created a world where blacks are a very motivational force. In Star Wars, you have the opening scene with the tiny ship fighting the big ship. On both sides, all the people are white. To [George Lucas]—and I mean no disrespect—it was a white world. I don’t attack that. Instead, I say we should also make up our own worlds.”