walter mosley's return to the hard-boiled world of mystery coloured with political subtexts as subtle as a kick in your teeth finds the New York-based L.A. native in top form. The five years he's spent expanding his scope as a literary stylist pay off, and Fearless Jones -- which introduces two minor characters from the Easy Rawlins days as protagonists -- leaves no doubt as to the author's genius.
The Rawlins series that made Mosley famous tracks the reluctant sleuth and his violent bro, Mouse, from the factories of 40s L.A. through the social cadences of the funky 70s.
By the time Denzel Washington brought Rawlins to life in Hollywood's version of Devil In A Blue Dress, Mosley was already stretching his artistic reach, riffing off more obvious musical inspirations and even trying his hand at some speculative fiction.
Although he never lost sight of the fact that readers are hungry for his insider's view of America's racist history, the African-American author seemed to have forgotten that at best the genre offers a fertile field for voicing social unrest. There was a reason Mosley's early works won instant comparison to the great and, not coincidentally, blacklisted noir pioneer, Dashiell Hammett.
With Fearless Jones, Mosley returns to the post-war milieu that launched him to nouveau noir best-sellerdom, but the darkness is tempered with humour. Mild-mannered used-book dealer Paris Minton is trying to mind his own business when the dazzling Elana Love mistakes his fledgling shop for a shady storefront church, dragging along a gang of thugs who then set out to destroy him.
The caper gets into high gear when Minton, realizing that a black businessman in 40s L.A. has few resources beyond his friends, springs his veteran buddy, Fearless Jones, from the jail sentence he's serving in lieu of paying a fine. He promptly lands himself and his friend in line for a murder rap.
From the opening declaration that a black man has to think twice before calling the cops in Watts, through to the fast friendship the pals form with the elderly Jewish widow of the murdered man, the racial realities of 21st-century L.A. are never completely absent from Mosley's period tale. And as always, the Swiss bonds the friends track down are just a plot device, what noir film stylist Alfred Hitchcock would call the McGuffin.
The story Mosley really wants to tell, and tells so well, is that of the indignities suffered by the black businessmen of the L.A. of his childhood. He's back, he's bad and he's brilliant.
FEARLESS JONES by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown and Company), 312 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNNN