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The Art of Money

Walter Mosley touches on economic injustice, race in ‘Shoot My Man’

Kai Ryssdal Feb 9, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Walter Mosley writes what are, on the face of it, crime novels. Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones were two of his early recurring characters. His latest book is called “All I Did Was Shoot My Man,” featuring a misguided private detective by the name of Leonid McGill.

The thing about Mosley’s books, though, is that they’re as much about class and race and economic inequality as they are about crime. Today in our series, the Art of Money, what artists and others see when they look at the economy, Walter Mosley. Thanks for being here.

Walter Mosley: Great to be here.

Ryssdal: Tell me about your guy here, Leonid McGill.

Mosley: Well Leonid McGill is a private detective, different than most. For most of his life he was a detective representing criminals. If you robbed a bank and you needed to blame somebody else, he would take some evidence and plant it on some other crook. And either that crook would get convicted or at least you couldn’t convict the original guy because there’s a conflict there. He realizes at some time that he’s been going the wrong way. He’s only recently, in his 50s, really realized how to go the right way in his life.

Ryssdal: Yeah. It became clear actually in this one that he has figured out how not to be the bad guy, but the good guy.

Mosley: Or at least how to try to be a good guy.

Ryssdal: Try to be, fair enough. Do you like him as a person, as a character?

Mosley: Oh, I like Leonid very much. He represents to me the 21st century. He’s the guy where everything has changed in the world. Like living in Los Angeles is a great example. You might say, I’m not going to move from place to place like everybody else. But even if you stay in the same place, everybody around you moves. So you become nomadic even if you stay in the same place. The 21st century is like that. The world we knew is gone and we’re living in a new world even though we didn’t go anywhere.

Ryssdal: All right, so let me pick up on that a little bit. Because there is a sense in this book that you just kind of have to play the hand you’re dealt with. You have to accept things the way they are and make your way in this world and in business, in life, in the economy, the best way you can.

Mosley: No, that’s right. You have to. And with every step you take, something changes. And the same thing with race. Race, it used to be, there were black people and white people and everybody thought the same. Now, every individual person thinks a different way and everything is different all the time.

Ryssdal: Leonid McGill is not a new character, but he is your latest character. Previously, you had a guy named Easy Rawlins as your protagonist. How has your view of the world and economy changed as you’ve transferred between these two characters?

Mosley: I think that people of color in the 20th century suffered under the weight of the distribution of wealth. That, in many ways, if you were black or Latino in America you were struggling in a way that the greater society — which is white society at that time — didn’t realize. In the 21st century, everybody has become that colored person in America. It hasn’t changed, but it’s broadened. The suffering has taken up a much larger space. So the identity of this so-called middle class, really working class, person — man and woman — has begun to embrace what black and Latino people knew all through the 20th century.

Ryssdal: You talk about the 20th century as if it were a lifetime ago. But it is, I mean it was like 15 years ago, you know? Forty years ago, to 1971, ’72.

Mosley: Well, you know, it’s like any kind of great economic disjunction. If you have enough money to eat on Tuesday, but by Friday you’re starving, Tuesday is a long time ago. And so I think that the change in politics and world economy has been so marked — since at least 2001 for America — that yes, the 20th century is like, it’s just like 12-13 years ago. But it’s much longer than that because we’re greatly removed from the potentials that we once had in this country.

Ryssdal: So where does Leonid McGill go in this world you describe?

Mosley: Leonid has to make a choice. Leonid is a tough guy and he’s not afraid to die, which is one of the things that you kind of have to be if you’re going to go up against global capitalism. When you go up against it, you just have to not be afraid. So Leonid says, ‘Fine, maybe you’re going to kill me, maybe I’m going to kill you. But I’m going to see this thing through to the end. Because you may not have morals, but I have at least some set of rules that I’m following that go against the corporation.’

Ryssdal: Isn’t that kind of bleak though?

Mosley: Listen, if you look at unemployment in America and poverty in the world, and if you don’t think it’s bleak… I mean, yes, it’s bleak. But it’s not inaccurate, I don’t think.

Ryssdal: Walter Mosley… I don’t know where to go with that one. Walter Mosley, his most recent book is called, “All I Did Was Shoot My Man.” Thanks a lot for coming in.

Mosley: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: You can read an excerpt from “All I Did Was Shoot My Man” here.

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