Letter from Washington: Easy does it, Mr President: Reggie Nadelson meets Clinton's favourite thriller writer

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'THE ONLY thing that surprised me about the riots in Los Angeles,' Walter Mosley said, 'was that anyone was surprised. It's just that Reagan and Bush conjured up a world in which they said it couldn't happen.'

Walter Mosley is the author of the Easy Rawlins mysteries, a trio of terrific best sellers which have an extra buzz just now, with Los Angeles tensing itself over the second Rodney King trial. Although Mosley's books are set in Los Angeles in the Forties and Fifties, the same explosive issues were already cooking up in and out of the black ghetto where the action takes place.

There's something else about Mosley, though: he is Bill Clinton's favorite thriller writer. This is interesting - Mosley's books are political in the way you reckon Clinton is: it's in the bone. 'Sure, my books are political,' he says. 'The underpinnings are political. Life is political.' At 41, chunky and stylishly dressed, Mosley is black, and a great story teller. I met him at Clinton's inaugural, and arranged to see him again in New York, where he lives, to talk about books and politics and what presidents like in the derring-do department.

Dwight Eisenhower read Zane Gray's westerns, Mosley recalls, and of course John Kennedy read Ian Fleming. JFK saw himself as James Bond, the cold warrior no woman could resist and none could hold, in the post war age when style and heroism still had a British accent. Richard Nixon had a passion for Patton, the movie; he watched it over and over, presumably sharing in the general's brilliance, paranoia and taste for the imperial. Reagan by all accounts read Tom Clancy, whose heroes fought the Commies with the most fancy weapons a military industrial complex could provide. Apart from Mosley, Clinton's favourite writer is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. So far as anyone can tell, George Bush never read anything at all.

Easy Rawlins is not quite like any of these. He is a tough private eye fit for the ranks of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer or Spenser, a guy who, up against it, commits amoral deeds in an immoral world to make things better, and likes the ladies - and the liquor - a lot. But he is also a black man. The books are a wonderful guide to black Los Angeles: the streets, the shops, the speakeasies, the cops and robbers, preachers and teachers, junkies and jazz musicians and ordinary folk trying to pay a mortgage.

In between sleuthing, Easy worries about his kids and his house payments, things that never kept Philip Marlowe awake nights. Easy walks a straighter line than Spenser or Marlowe. As a black man, a couple of glib retorts to a cop and he would be dead meat. So he has no illusions: the world is racist and he rubs along as best he can. Things happen to him; cops beat him up for nothing in particular; he is the pawn of callous white officials. Sometimes his survival depends on solving cases he's pretty ambivalent about.

'You like Easy,' Mosley said, 'because he's up against the odds, like all crime fiction heroes, but his are somehow more real. You never know if he's gonna make it. He lives entirely inside the problem. His whole world is a problem.' Being Easy Rawlins trying to fix things in South Central Los Angeles is a bit like being President. As someone once said of Clinton's economic plan: 'One: it's impossible, and, two: there's no alternative.'

In Easy's world, the only good whites are Jews. In the war Easy serves with troops who liberated concentration camps (black divisions did take part in the liberation of Dachau). He compares himself to Abe and Johnny, the Holocaust survivors who run a liquor store, or Chaim Wenzler, the Polish union man. 'Negroes in America have the same life as the Jew in Poland,' Chaim tells Easy. 'Ridiculed, segregated. We were hung and burned for just being alive.' In Poland, Chaim watches his brother being hanged for spitting in front of a soldier. It reminds Easy of his childhood down south.

The identification and sympathy between blacks and Jews in the Fifties and Sixties was real; one of the agonies of the Nineties, for those Americans raised on it, is the ugly tension between them in places like Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Mosley said: 'There is a lot of tension because there's a great deal of intimacy. A lot of money passes back and forth. The cultural development between the two is different right now.'

From the first, Mosley's thrillers were a critical hit. When, during the election campaign Clinton picked up a couple at a bookshop in Los Angeles, word got out. Sales boomed. Mosley has just finished a screenplay of his first book, Devil in a Blue Dress for Jonathan Demme: Danny Glover is going to play Easy. A hard-core New York convert, Mosley nonetheless admitted: 'I love going out to LA now, I get to do movie things. All the women are beautiful and all the men are powerful and they all say, yes sir.'

There will be more Easy Rawlins novels; Mosley intends writing nine altogether, bringing his hero along through the upheavals of the Sixties, maybe finishing up with Easy at 75, watching his neighborhood burn in the Los Angeles riots of June, 1992.

Mosley is not pessimistic, though. 'Sure, racism in America infects almost everything, but it's hard to quantify. Last time I was in LA, I saw Korean and black kids gambling together, and I'm sure in Crown Heights there's some black guy eyeing some Jewish girl.'

You can see why Bill Clinton likes Walter Mosley's books, why he'd find Easy Rawlins alluring and sympathetic. Like Bill, Easy's a southerner, a small town boy who makes it in the big city, a glutton for food, women, jazz, knowledge. And someone once said of Clinton that he sucked up whatever passes by like a fish with its mouth open.

What's more, unlike most Americans, neither he nor Clinton is the child of immigrants. Bill Clinton and Easy Rawlins are both almost mythically American. They don't come from anywhere else.

'Devil in a Blue Dress' and 'A Red Death' are published by Serpent's Tail; 'White Butterfly' will be published later this year.