Fear Itself. By Walter Mosley; Last Car to Elysian Fields. By James Lee Burke

Verdicts on a nation from partners in crime
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The Independent Culture

Being fêted North American crime writers and lovers of the blues aside, what do James Lee Burke and Walter Mosley have in common? Each, in his different way, writes - shall we say -to die for, and each, as befits a thinking person living and writing in the United States, has the state of his country at the heart of his work's concerns. Of the two, Mosley is the more articulate about his choice of a popular form in which to express his ideas, whereas Burke - well, it's just possible that he simply wants to hit us with a rattling yarn and some deft characterisation, but all that other stuff keeps getting in the way.

Fear Itself is the second of Mosley's novels to feature Paris Minton, a man defined, as he himself claims, by his intelligence, the second-hand bookstore he operates, and his sexual endowment. And his fear - of almost everything. It is fear that orchestrates just about all Paris does. One of the few things it doesn't do is stop him answering his front door - foolish, when he knows, odds on, it's trouble that's going to come walking through. Most often, trouble comes in the shape of his best friend and alter ego, Fearless Jones, a man utterly true to his name. "Fearless", as Paris puts it, "was my best friend and more trouble than a white girl on the prowl in Mississippi".

The plot itself is orthodox enough: a woman in apparent distress, a missing person, a "Maltese Falcon", here in the shape of an emerald pendant set in white sapphires. Lies and subterfuge, money to be made from oil. People get shot; people die. But, like almost all of Mosley's work, this is a novel about the experience of being black in America, and therein lies its heart and its brilliance.

The setting is Los Angeles in 1955, which places it historically between A Red Death and White Butterfly in the author's Easy Rawlins series, and marks it as part of Mosley's project to provide a history, marginalised in popular fiction, of the postwar black experience. It is no coincidence that a missing chronicle of one black family's time in America, dating from the 18th century, lies at the core of this book. Nor was the decision to make its hero a bookseller an arbitrary one. "Literature," Paris explains, "came to my aid when I had to face the hard reality of racism".

It's difficult to know what to bring to the aid of Dave Robicheaux, back in Burke's Last Car to Elysian Fields and haunted by alcoholism, vestigial malaria, the death of two wives and the ghosts of Vietnam. A story which involves the road death of three teenage girls, the unsolved disappearance of Junior Crudup, who once sang with Leadbelly, and the relationship between a rebellious Catholic priest and a lapsed assassin, is unlikely to help.

But Burke's readers will know what to expect. Assisted, if that's the word, by his buddy Clete Purcel - the only man with more pent-up rage and self-disgust than Robicheaux himself - our hero batters his way through all-comers to a melancholy but relatively positive conclusion. What he can't step around is the fact that the America he loves is rapidly going to hell in a handcart. Corporate greed and theological fanaticism have, as he says, root- ed themselves in the modern world. It is no surprise to find oil money floating at the base of this book, too, in profits to be made from new drilling contracts in Iraq "after Shrub turns it into an American colony".

James Lee Burke's prose is the antithesis of Mosley's (he never uses one sentence when three or four will do), but it has a muscularity and richness that is entirely appropriate to its Louisiana setting. And after a few detours to Texas with Billy Bob Holland and a backwards look at the Civil War in White Doves at Morning, this is Burke back at his bayou best. Read one and then read the other.

'Men from Boys', a collection of stories edited by John Harvey, is published by Heinemann