Friday, April 16, 2004

Fear Itself, Walter Mosley, Read by Don Cheadle, Time Warner Audio Books

Bad Boy Brawly Brown, Walter Mosley, Read by M.E. Willis, Audio Renaissance

Part of listening to books on CD at work involves picking shorter books that I can get through in two days. Doing a part-time evening shift, I work three days in a row at best, and I don’t like to break up the narrative for too long a period of time. I’ve done it (I listened to all five Harry Potter books over a three week period), but my preferences are for books of around 8 to 9 CDs tops. That will generally run about ten hours.

Mysteries fit this category nicely. A recent article in The New Yorker about a new novel by Walter Mosley reminded me that he’d been on my list to read for quite some time. Having a child will really hurt to your “To Read” list and the goal of finishing the major works of Western Philosophy (followed by the major works of Eastern Philosophy, the writings of the Founding Fathers, the last three volumes of Frazier’s Golden Bough, etc. etc.) will get pushed farther and farther back. Plain old regular authors you hope to someday “get around to” often recede even further.

Surprisingly, though, this is good news for the authors of mysteries and other “disposable” fiction (romances, westerns, thrillers, horror). I still crave the indulgence of reading, but lack the time for The Big Books. Besides sleep deprivation does funny things to your attention span. Mysteries seem the least dumb of genre writing, as it takes far more brain power to construct an elaborate riddle than it does to stand around the corner and jump out to scare the bejeezus out of someone.

So it took me a Monday and Tuesday to listen to Don Cheadle’s reading of Fear Itself, Thursday, Friday, and a bit of Saturday morning delivered me Bad Boy Brawly Brown. Two neat, tightly constructed mysteries in one week by an author well worth looking into (editorial disclaimer, originally I wrote “well worth investigating” then deleted that as too hokey).

It’s an odd choice to have Don Cheadle, one of my all time favorite character actors, reading the shorter, lesser known series of books. Fans of Cheadle’s turn as Mouse from the Easy Rawlins adaptation, Devil in a Blue Dress, will understand. Cheadle hands down stole the film from Denzel Washington in the title role — and any man who can steal a film from Denzel has to be an amazingly good actor. Cheadle left his mark so squarely on the character of Mouse (easily the most memorable feature of the film), that having him read the Easy books would have been a smart choice. Instead, Cheadle’s more laid back rendition is put into the mouth of Paris Minton, the educated bookstore owner/narrator of the Fearless series, while the more scholarly sounding reading by M.E. Willis is put into the mouth of a school janitor and part-time detective.

Neither man is a bad choice for reader of the books; they just seem like odd casting choices. Both excel in giving each character a distinctive life and sound without relying heavily on hokey accents or broad caricatures. Cheadle’s Fearless Jones sounds bigger than the diminutive actor does, tougher, ready to whoop your ass if necessary. But he’s also able to deliver a range of female characters without retreating into simpering. Willis unnerved me at first, his diction so precise and so refined I worried he’d make the lowdown characters that populate this book (and as a rule most mysteries) cartoonish oafs. He delivered each with just the slightest twist to his voice, enough to let you know who was speaking in dialogues without attribution, but without hamming it up.

What makes Mosley’s novels more than just entertaining mysteries, which they are, is that he shines a light on an era and a group of the population that for most popular entertainment is just local “color.” What did black neighborhoods look, feel, sound, and smell like in the fifties and sixties? Too many books (and movies for that matter) by white writers throw in one or two black characters, stock types of kindly wise old darkies (Stephen King’s view) or angry militant semi-educated types (think Eddie Murphy as Professor Shabazz K Morton doing his “Black History Minute”). Mosley’s characters are fully formed, surprising, and easy to empathize with. When Easy tries to both relate to and discipline his adopted son, you can feel him struggling with how to manage both tasks, being both loving and stern. When Paris confesses that he turned to run when a man pulled a gun on him, the reader (listener) has to confess too: That’s what I’d have done myself.

We ride through Los Angeles, Watts in particular, with his characters and Mosley gives us the thriving, jumping, pulsing neighborhood pre-riots. With the hindsight of the future, the tragedy underlining the books, giving their melancholic narrators heft, is the constant knowledge that all of this will soon pass into urban decay and destruction. Mosley pulls back history’s veil and delivers us a world almost foreign. Los Angeles of this era is as iconic as foggy gaslit London with the original practitioners of the craft like Chandler and the new voices like Ellroy. But they’ve both given us essentially the same LA, corrupt, dingy, white. Mosley’s work gives us the flipside of that coin. Hopefully a Hispanic mystery writer will be next to flesh out the city of the fallen Angels.

Fear Itself is the second in the Fearless series, the first being simply Fearless Jones. Bad Boy Brawly Brown is the fifth or sixth in his Easy Rawlins series.

I’m afraid I jumped into both series after the beginning, which is technically against my own special rules on series books. I did this for two important and specific reasons. Reason One: those were the only ones the library had at the time. Reason Two: a mystery series differs from a series like, well let’s use the above mentioned Harry Potter books. Mysteries, while having the same characters and the same locations, should be able to stand alone. They’re usually not part of a limited run (those damn A is for Alibi books notwithstanding) like trilogies and the plots usually aren’t too interconnected. Reason Two is kind of a rationalization for the lame situation presented by Reason One causing me to break my own rules, but that’s as it may be.

Fear Itself is easily the more stand alone of the two — being only the second book in a series that will hopefully grow as well as the Easy books. It maps out some familiar territory from the other series with our smarter than he’s taken for narrator and his violent friend. In this case, the narrator is a timid bookstore owner, Paris Minton, a small statured man who really only wants to be left alone to sell his books. His muscle-bound friend Fearless Jones shows up to drag him into various scrapes involving money and women, those famous old potboiler devices. The plot is tightly complicated and Mosley avoids the weakness many mysteries display in having characters introduced briefly on page 12 only to be absent until page 212. This is daunting in keeping your story straight — trying to remember whether it was the wealthy industrialist named Clemson or the chief of police. Cheadle’s characterizations help to keep track of names that you only hear. (Seeing a name in print often makes it more memorable to me.)

Bad Boy Brawly Brown is much harder to jump into if you haven’t read the previous books as the character of Easy Rawlins, a lone guy in book one, has over the decade added a family, kids, and a major life altering tragedy. These happenstances from earlier books are sketched clearly and concisely without belaboring the point. Mosley also manages to avoid that classic TV arrangement where the plot is rehashed for the audience: “Okay, so tell me your plan again for getting back the letter.” The plot here too is nice and mystery-thick with people lying for their own reasons that have nothing to do with the main mystery and covering up their own petty crimes. Easy has tried to pull himself out of the mystery solving business, but it proves not only unwilling to let him go, it proves addictive. Mosley describes Easy wanting to get sucked back in, letting himself get pulled back down into the game, just as inevitably as a smoker will quit only to light up the moment a drink is in hand.

The enjoyment I had with these two books has prompted me to go the library and order up all the other Mosley books the library has on CD. Based on the way the publishing companies seem to handle the man’s work, I won’t be surprised if they snag Laurence Fishburne to read Mosley’s latest, The Man In My Basement.

No comments: