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Absent Friends

 

Fear Itself
Walter Mosley
Little, Brown,
2003
Rating: 3.5

    Six Easy Pieces
Walter Mosley
Little, Brown,
2003
Rating: 3.8

 

Posted: August 16, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Thank Robert B. Parker for one thing: Since he introduced the impassive assassin Hawk to his Spenser series of detective novels, the chilling, competent sidekick has become a staple of modern crime fiction. Parker certainly wasn't the first genre writer to provide a deadly foil for his protagonist, but there's no arguing the fact that Hawk -- the sleek, menacing and deadly yang to Spenser's, um, more principled, questing, other yang (no yins here) -- has sired a drawing room full of similar characters: Robert Crais' Joe Pike, brooding warrior friend to Robert Crais' Elvis Cole ; Max the Silent, mute Mongol brother to Andrew Vachss' slippery Burke ; Dennis Lehane's burly sociopath Bubba Rogowski; and, last but not least, Walter Mosley's Mouse, lusty and indifferent guardian angel to Mosley's popular Easy Rawlins.

Of all these lethal Tontos, the pantheon of crime fiction's dark ids, Mosley's Mouse rings truest. That's partly because Mosley -- unlike, say, Crais -- isn't merely indulging in expertly executed, page-turning escapism. Gritty realism is the holy grail of all crime fiction, but Mosley's tableaus ring with an authenticity that few writers of any genre can match; his books are informed by their characters' experiences as black men who've grown up learning how to operate in the margins of the white man's world, men whose bedrock moral codes make them lone operators even among a race of outsiders. Save for the sex and gunplay, Mosley's Easy Rawlins works, in particular, often read more like memoirs than potboilers, and it's this ear for veracity that makes Mouse so believable a character. Mosely conjures pre-Civil Rights Los Angeles so vividly that Mouse could almost be real -- you know that he's only a hair's-breadth of exaggeration removed from similar men who did populate that era, and still exist in ours.

Too bad Mouse's appearance in Six Easy Pieces is such a letdown. The book -- a collection of six short stories originally published as back-ups in recent Washington Square reissues of previous Rawlins mysteries -- works better as a series of self-contained but connected vignettes in which a restless Easy is still struggling to come to grips with his friend's apparent death (as he was in last year's Bad Boy Brawly Brown). As he deals with a series of crises and tangled events -- tracking down the man who started a fire at the school where he serves as head custodian; emotionally disconnecting from his lover Bonnie after her allegedly innocent dalliance with another man -- Easy slowly tracks down clues to confirm a suspicion that Mouse is still alive. (Spoiler Alert: If you don't want a major surprise ruined, don't read any further.)

Turns out he's right: Mouse is indeed still alive, news which his jealous woman has concealed from Easy, comically fearing the latter's bad influence on her cold-eyed killer of a man. The trouble with this is that such a major revelation is treated in a doggedly anticlimactic fashion. Rawlins, who's always stubbornly held onto a hope that Mouse was alive, reacts with some shock, but not nearly enough. And the moment's built-in heft, the emotional gravity it all but begs for, is thus squandered. In no time, it's as if Mouse had never disappeared, never been mistaken for dead. In which case, what was the point of letting us believe he was? Mosley obviously intended for Mouse's "death" to cause Easy to question his own life, and to be fair, that part goes as planned. But presumably Mouse's return is supposed to underline for Easy any changes in his nature, the ways in which he's grown further removed from Mouse's methods. Easy does become more like his friend, rather than less, during his period of grieving -- more reckless, less concerned with the damage he does to his day job by taking so much personal time to investigate a few cases here and there. But once Mouse returns, there's no revelatory moment that quantifies the changes in Easy's personality. Mouse's so-called death proves little more than a squandered storytelling opportunity. (It doesn't help that all of this unfolds over the course of seven short stories; an event of this magnitude really deserved its own full-length tale.)

If Mouse, as a character, exerts more influence on Easy's tale in his absence than he does in his return, this event is oddly echoed in Fear Itself, Mosley's second novel featuring Fearless Jones, a kind of variation on the lethal sidekick concept. Although Fear Itself is billed as "A Fearless Jones Novel," Fearless himself -- who also appeared in the previous book in this series, Fearless Jones -- actually plays a supporting role. The novel centers around narrator Paris Minton, a bookstore owner and self-described coward who's pulled into the story when Fearless shows up at his door seeking help. Like Mouse, Fearless is painted as a deadly combatant, the kind you'd want on your side in a fight. But also like Mouse, he's doled out in small doses, and we're left to form our own pictures of him using only Minton's contrasting perspective as a guide.

Trouble is, while Minton is a fully fleshed-out character, Fearless never becomes more than a cipher. Worse, he's a bit of a stereotype. Simple where Minton is complex, he allows himself to be pulled into deadly situations, for which he has a simple answer: violence. He's also the kind of man whose attentions can turn women into possessive harpies: the brutally powerful, not-too-smart stud. Thus, it's difficult to see exactly what makes the well-read Minton look with such Watsonian reverence upon this reverse Holmes. So when, at the end, Fearless surprises his friend with a clear-cut moral decision involving a rare artifact that the all-too-human Minton basely seeks to keep for his own, the moment doesn't ring with quite the authority Mosley no doubt intends. The message is clear enough: The simple, violent Jones teaches the bookish, self-admitted coward something about himself. But since Jones is never presented as more than an ephemeral cliché, the moment is robbed of some of its poignancy.

Fear Itself is an intriguing read, although that's less a function of the plot (involving the usual standbys: murder, money, sex and an enemy the reader sees coming from a mile away) than of Mosley's inversion of the hero-sidekick equation. He gives Minton Easy's smarts and pragmatism, but transfers Easy's grating patina of saintliness (the new principal at school adores him; he touches the lives of each and every kid in the school, not to mention the two children in his own care) to the rock-solid moral Jones, who also possesses Mouse's baseline brutality. But in the end, it all too neatly echoes the major flaw of Six Easy Pieces, in that the important role of the powerful friend is lessened. In the end, Paris Minton and Easy Rawlins are both living in the shadow of men who, where we're concerned at least, aren't really there.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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