Walter Mosley "fits the bill." Since the publication of Devil in the Blue Dress in 1990, this author has gained nationwide respect among his peers.
It was Gates and McKay who said, "in the 1990's Walter Mosley's writings extended African American literature into the genre of the hard-boiled mystery… " (page 2019) Walter Mosley's writing represents an attitude not too distant from the Advancement Academy students. He is popular among many Americans. Yet, according to Gates (page 2594), "Mosely has swiftly entered into the company of contemporary American novelists whose work is expected to last." Gates goes on to describe Mosely's chosen vehicle, a series of mystery novels set in postwar Los Angeles featuring a reluctant black investigator, Easy Rawlins.
From the first chapter of any book within this series, the people and the world presented becomes familiar. The character, Easy Rawlins offers particularly good opportunities for student interest and reading instruction. Over the series of books, this man becomes even more vivid. Rawlins is presented as a human being dealing with both his community and a greater society as he seeks to solve crimes. He "wrestles with his own demons as well as the villains, white and black, whom he encounters in his perambulations around Los Angeles." (Gates and McKay, page 2595) Moreover, he is presented as a real, and sometimes very ordinary, person. It will be helpful to these students to explore Rawlins' battle with his own capacity for violence. He lives in a string of rented apartments and has a family of two adopted children whom he does not share with the white people he works around. As Mosley himself states in an interview with a reporter from the Hartford (CT) Courant, "Anyone who knows my work and has paid any attention to it knows what to expect. They know there is going to be a black man at the center of the story. And he's going to be struggling for identity, for redemption, for some kind of comprehension of who he is in a world which doesn't really care about that." (June 6, 1999, page G7)
Once a reader suspends belief, as I predict most will readily do, the reader becomes Easy Rawlins. One takes on the character. The reader becomes the investigator. Such engagement makes for quick reading of short novels.
Advancement Academy students may recognize Easy Rawlins as a favorite, adventuresome uncle. He lives in the North, but maintains his ties to the South. He cherishes his living quarters, whether it is that little house in Watts or an apartment in another urban neighborhood. These are his homes, not just places to sleep. He cleverly maintains two worlds - home and work. He is gainfully employed in various jobs and frequents the "joints", where everybody knows him, only after the job ends and the pay is earned. His relationships are solid. He thinks about his "Mama" and former girl friends down there, back home where ever that is. Even their names will ring bells with the Academy students. In Devil, there is Coretta, the girl friend of a friend; Lips, the sax player in one of the joints; and Junior who protects his mother every night at her after hours joint.
Easy's language lends to this familiarity. Readers can become Easy through Mosley's skillful handling of the American language. His images are well presented and rich, leaving enough room for the reader's imagination to construct a setting and watch the characters function in it. His words trigger the imagination. Because the Easy Rawlins series is written in the first person, the reader hears him think. Like his speeches and dialogue, this novel is written in rather brief, uncomplicated, sentences. His metaphors are vivid. The words are clear and concise, like any detective, but with a tinge of a Southern drawl. Without using undecipherable Ebonics or exaggerated passages of what some consider African American language, the language of Mosely's characters will most likely ring ordinary to the ears of these young people. The conversations are distinctly African American. Some of the phrases are in that code which could be considered the first language of some urban African Americans. However, with a minimal effort, just about everyone can understand the speech of Mosley's characters.
Los Angeles just after World War II is the setting for Devil in a Blue Dress. Devil in a Blue Dress gained immediate critical and commercial success and made a popular place for Easy Rawlins. This may lead to an understandable criticism that Mosley writes for a particular audience. Whether Los Angeles or New York City, his settings are urban America and this label has grown to mean an African American environment. Even though there is room for an argument about the universality of the character, I will admit that there is truth in the statement. Easy's world, viewpoint, and demeanor are African American. He lives in an African American setting that Mosley introduces to a greater world.
My selection of Walter Mosley was swayed by the discovery of the movie version of Devil in a Blue Dress because Academy students appeared favorably impressed with the story as shown recently on prime time network television. This is a popular movie version of this film. The females in class enjoyed actor Denzel Washington in the role of Easy Rawlins. Overall, it is a good film that can easily be used in a high school classroom. The movie script has been sanitized. Even though, removing some of the blood, gore and sex does changes the story, viewing the movie will make a good supplemental activity for the class.
The book provides a more suitable depiction of characters and much more vivid scenes and the object is to have students decipher the words on the page and comprehend the story. However, because the ending of Devil as written by Mosley involves starkly presented sex with a white woman, I shied away from this selection of this particular book to be read in the class. I did not want to spend time on the issue of black/white romantic relations, since the strategy is to move through the plot with deliberate speed. Although a teacher using this unit must be prepared to respond to the issue, the major issue of intergroup romantic relations and pertinent education on that aspect of diversity can be addressed in a separate arena. That is not the focus here.
Mosley is a master at using sex in his plots in a manner that allows the reader's attention to remain on the unraveling mystery. In fact, sex is an important part of the plot in many of his novels. He tastefully entwines this aspect of human behavior into the story and yet he does not allow sex to become the central focus of any of his works. Advancement Academy students often bring their own sexual interests and questions into the class. At times, their personal escapades or fantasies are discussed openly with their permission. Using the works of Walter Mosley will allow a teacher to develop an attitude that sex is a rather ordinary part of adult life and, when tastefully placed as Mosley usually does, sex does not have to be taboo or shocking. At best, it is a normal part of adult life. And, at best, this will create opportunities for appropriate sex education.