Triviana

Racial hurricane in L.A.
with Paris Minton in its eye

''Fear of the Dark''
By Walter Mosley
(Little, Brown and Company; 308 pages; 25.99)
Buy at Amazon

Reviewed by John Orr
September 2006

The only thing to do about Walter Mosley is to stand back in awe and admiration, tip a hat in appreciation, then move on to reading another of his excellent books.

It's not just that he's one of the small handful of greatest writers working today, it's that he is so prolific. His latest, ''Fear of the Dark,'' is his fifth book published this year. And the others -- ''The Wave'' (science fiction), ''Life Out of Context'' (political ruminations), ''Cinnamon Kiss'' (mystery) and ''Fortunate Son'' (fiction) -- are not hack work; they range from extremely good to brilliant and have won admiration from all their audiences.

''I only write about three or four hours a day, so but I do it every day,'' Mosley told me earlier this year, ''and that seems to be enough.''

His mysteries are fascinating, cleverly plotted whodunits filled with crime, violence, sex, wisdom and poetry. His political thinking is informed, brilliantly thought-through and cuts like a razor.

''Fear of the Dark'' is another visit by Mosley to black Los Angeles of the 1950s, starring a couple of his regulars, Paris Minton and Fearless Jones. Paris is small and bookish but a real lady's man, afraid of almost everything but books. (In this tale, he says at one point that he isn't afraid enough of women.) Fearless is huge, strong, fearless and completely moral, in his way.

This tale begins with Paris being visited at his bookstore by his cousin, Ulysses S. Grant IV, ''whom everyone but his mother and Fearless called Useless ... a petty thief, a liar, a malingerer, and just plan bad luck."

Paris turns Useless away, but bad luck comes visiting soon anyway, in the shapely form of Jessa, a young white woman who likes Paris quite a bit. They are on the floor of Paris' bookstore together when her ex-boyfriend, Tiny (who isn't) breaks down the door. Paris and Jessa manage to escape, but when Paris eventually returns to his bookstore, with Fearless, they find Tiny dead, a bullet hole in his head.

Fearless and Paris, with the help of a friend of Fearless', hide Tiny's body, because they know the police will think Paris killed him. ''All three of us were living according to black people's law. The minute I came upon that white boy's body I knew that I would be seen as guilty in the eyes of American justice.''

More bad luck comes in the form of people trashing the book store while Paris is in hiding, obviously looking for something.

So, Paris has to try to figure out what Useless was planning to hide in the bookstore, that bad people want to find, and what Useless' connection was to Tiny the dead white guy. Not only that, Paris has to find Useless, who has disappeared, because Useless's doting mother, Three Hearts, is in town and wants Useless found. Paris believes Three Hearts possesses the evil eye, so she may not be refused.

Mosley paints a multi-layered, detailed picture of black Los Angeles in the 1950s, when all most Americans worried about was the price of gas going up to 29 cents a gallon, but black Americans still suffered horrid mistreatment and segregation.

Paris and Fearless are both wonderful characters, and Paris, who narrates, especially has some amusing and telling adventures with women in this story.

There is Ashe, who is the only person Paris has ever met who had read more than he. Paris is happy because she is a bad dresser, because he ''suspected she was beautiful under that dowdy facade. I didn't want to get romantically involved with Ashe because she was my best customer and I really like talking with her. ... I wasn't ready for a good woman like Ashe, and as long as she dressed the way she did, she couldn't tempt a fool like me.''

Another temptress for Paris is Loretta, a Japanese woman whose family ''had been imprisoned in an American-run concentration camp during World War II.'' She hates all white people.

And there is Mum, a Chinese woman who hates Japanese people because of what happened in Manchuria in the 1930s. But she very much likes Paris.

In a way, Paris is in the eye of a hurricane of racial tension, and Mosley -- prose poet that he is -- uses that position to continue his brilliant, nearly unmatched examination of the racial history of America in the 20th century.

And with all that, it's just a terrific, fun, detective tale.


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