It's Black, White--And Noir

In his forthcoming novel, "Bad Boy Brawly Brown," Walter Mosley sends his hero Easy Rawlins in search of a young African-American man who's joined up with the Urban Revolutionary Party in mid-'60s Los Angeles. But just when Easy finds the young man at a party meeting, the cops barge in. "A police raid meant nothing to me," Easy says. "I'd been in whorehouses, speakeasies, barber shops and alley crap games when the police came down. Sometimes I got away and sometimes I lied about my name. There was nothing spectacular about being rousted for being black."

It takes only a few pages for Mosley to capture the anger and violence of the '60s, and he does it from the point of view of an African-American man who wants no part of radicalism and even less to do with the white power structure that throws the police at the slightest sign of unrest. The remarkable thing about this scene, though, is that it takes place not in some ambitious social novel about racial violence but in a detective story. And these days that sort of social realism is not that uncommon.

Novels with a social conscience, or novels that picked at the warp and woof of the way people lived, were once a high-protein staple of the American literary diet--think Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck or John Dos Passos. But then social realism fell from favor in literary circles. Remember Philip Roth's famous quote in the early '60s that fic-tion could no longer keep pace with reality? These days, with a few exceptions--Richard Price, Colson Whitehead--mystery writers have social realism almost all to themselves. Or as crime writer Dennis Lehane puts it succinctly, "Today's social novel is the crime novel." Lehane backs that claim up with a half-dozen mysteries ("Prayers for Rain," "Mystic River") about life high and low in Boston, and so can writers like Mosley, James Lee Burke, George P. Pelecanos, James Sallis and Paula L. Woods.

Today's crime writers, black and white alike, are tackling the volatile subject of race with a daring conspicuously lacking in mainstream fiction. Because race is almost never the main event in their stories, these writers don't look at racial issues as problems to resolve. They look at them as clues about how society works, or doesn't work. The result is often some of the freshest reporting being done on America. Even law professor Stephen Carter, who got mixed reviews for his eagerly anticipated debut novel, "The Emperor of Ocean Park," drew praise for his portrait of upper-middle-class African-American society--in the middle of a mystery novel.

Mosley kick-started the trend in 1990 with "Devil in a Blue Dress," the first of six Easy Rawlins mysteries in which he's charted the history of black life in Los Angeles from the '40s to the '60s. With several decades left to go in the saga, it is already a rare and unexpected literary achievement. "When people like my books, they say I transcended the genre," Mosley says with the air of a man who's gotten away with something. "A broad audience gives the mystery writer a chance to address social issues like race, not just preach to the converted."

In the best of these books, there's no preaching at all, just a poker-faced description of the problem. Sometimes that's even more unsettling. Paula L. Woods's two novels about Charlotte Justice chart the efforts of a black female struggling to make it in the white, male world of the Los Angeles Police Department. No happy ending is guaranteed. "She is trying to assimilate into a police force that she may not be able to assimilate into," Woods says.

The most fascinating parts of Woods's stories deal with the internal contradictions in African-American culture, starting with the question of skin color. "I learned from my mother's experiences that life in America was a game called Pigmentocracy, color a card you played," Charlotte says in "Inner City Blues." "So if my 'high yellow' color lulled my white superiors in the Department into thinking I was somehow safer and less militant than my darker sisters and brothers, then that was their mistake, not mine." Woods expected some criticism for such passages. Instead, "I get an amazed response from whites," she says, "and a nod from blacks. Almost everyone is grateful."

Almost everyone is right. George P. Pelecanos says he's had people walk out of readings when he so much as mentions issues like gun control in a story. But Pelecanos is more aggressive about issues than most crime writers. In novels like "Right as Rain" and "Hell to Pay," his characters, both black and white, constantly pick at each other's assumptions about race. And Pelecanos never lets anybody, the reader included, off the hook. His questions about racial differences and prejudice implicate us all.

"There's this assumption some people have," Pelecanos says, "that deep down we're all alike. Well, we're not." Capitalizing on that fact, this growing cadre of American mystery writers has left Colonel Mustard and his candlestick back in the library, preferring instead to simply stare the real world in the face. As Mosley says, "We have the responsibility to talk about the world--not teach, just talk about the world we live in--the insoluble mysteries."