BOOKS / Easy money, tough life: Walter Mosley, whose thrillers cross racial boundaries, talks to Andrew Holgate

HOWEVER equivocal his political convictions, it's hard to begrudge Bill Clinton his choice of reading matter, especially his enthusiasm for Walter Mosley, the black Jewish novelist whose Easy Rawlins books are currently cutting a swathe through American crime writing. Taking the hard-boiled tradition of Raymond Chandler and transporting it to the streets of Watts and South Central, Mosley has written a sequence of rich and compelling thrillers, set between 1948 and 1956, which say more about racism in America than almost any contemporary novel you care to mention.

Mosley himself has no doubt about crime fiction's ability to address serious issues. 'The thriller form interests me because it's like dealing with more than one language. To begin with there's the language Chandler invented, which talks about people's fears of what's around them and invests the world - the streets of L A - with life. And then there's the black language, which I write in dialect. Black people in America always have to speak at least two languages and pay attention to at least two sets of rules - those of the black community and those of the white one. That really exposes a lot about America.'

If this makes Mosley's books sound more like critiques than crime novels, then the first few pages of Devil in a Blue Dress, Red Devil or his latest, White Butterfly, quickly reassure you. Bodies, booze and bar girls do the quick-step around our hero's increasingly tortured morality. Where Mosley differs from other crime novelists is in the setting. Rather than send Rawlins - a complex figure whose character and circumstances change dramatically over the course of the novels - out into the wicked white world, Mosley places him firmly in his own black community. Exploring both the seedy and the sedate side of Watts, the novels offer a portrait of post-war America that Philip Marlowe wouldn't recognise.

Mosley came to crime writing almost by accident. Born and brought up in Watts, he was kicked out of college - 'I don't blame them, I really wasn't doing anything' - and drifted in and out of various more or less artistic careers, before marrying choreographer Joy Kellman and settling in New York as a computer programmer. Only when this work began to depress him did he sign up for a creative writing course at New York's City College. His first novel, a bleak picture of black working-class life that featured Easy and his partner Mouse, was rejected by a string of publishers because of the lack of a white character to 'interest' white readers. Undaunted, Mosley began Devil in a Blue Dress, inspired by Graham Greene's introduction to The Third Man: 'Greene says he wrote the novel in order to write a screenplay. It sounded such a wonderful idea that I just started writing in what I thought was a cinematic voice, and I got about two or three chapters in and thought, wow, I like this.'

That was seven years ago, since when Mosley has experienced the sort of career hike most authors only dream about, complete with booming sales, fat film contracts (Carl Franklin, director of One False Move, is set to direct Devil in a Blue Dress) and a list of admirers that includes Christopher Hitchens, Denzil Washington and, of course, the President.

If Graham Greene provided the initial spark, the key influence on Mosley's writing - besides Chandler and Hammett - lies closer to home. 'In some ways everything is based on my father, Leroy,' he explains. 'While he was alive - he died last January - we would get together once in a while and tell each other jokes. More often than not we would laugh all night long, and that way of telling stories is the way I write my books.'

Mosley Senior and Easy Rawlins were both born in Texas, both served in the Second World War, and both became janitors after leaving the army. Just where Mosley's mother - a white Jewish New Yorker who met Leroy at the school where they both worked - fits into the fictional picture is harder to tell, although Mosley is never shy of drawing comparisons between black and Jewish experience. In Devil in a Blue Dress, for instance, Easy suffers a flashback to the moment when his unit 'liberated' one of the Nazi concentration camps. 'In Europe,' he whispers, 'the Jew had been a Negro for more than a thousand years.'

Despite his tough credentials, Easy Rawlins is a more intriguing character than the craggy private eyes normally thrown up by the genre. A property owner who's pretending to be a janitor, an unwilling investigator forced constantly to adopt masks, Easy goes places and meets people the Los Angeles police wouldn't get within a mile of. The fact that he's a black man operating in a black world, but often at the behest of the white authorities, causes its own difficulties. 'Like most black people, Easy responds to racism on two different levels. He is held back and held down, he always has to question things much more than anybody else, he always has to be better than anybody else and he always has to be secretive with others while being very honest with himself. His whole life has taught him that if you wear gold chains, someone is going to take them away from you; if you get a lot of money, some woman is going to try to steal it; and if you're a woman, a man will just beat you till you give him your money. This is his experience and it is true for many black people in America.'

Mosley's almost unique position as a famous black Jewish writer has made him something of a totemic figure in American political life, especially in relation to the inter-ethnic violence affecting black and Jewish communities. But Mosley is fairly relaxed about his twin inheritance. Asked how Jewish he felt, he replied: 'Well, my mother is a Jew. But in this society if you are black at all, you are black.'

'White Butterfly' is published by Serpent's Tail on 2 September at pounds 7.99. Walter Mosley is reading at the Edinburgh Book Fair on Saturday 28 August (Photograph omitted)

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