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known to evil

19 march 2022

Why have I been reading the 12-year-old second of six in one of Walter Mosley's many crime-novel series … probably because I spotted it somewhere for next to nothing in decent condition. If I backed up and methodically read crime-novel series in the right order every time I saw a used book, I would drive myself bibliographically mad.

Known to Evil is a Leonid McGill mystery, and as noted there was one before it appeared in 2010 and there have been four since. McGill is a first-person narrator, a New York City private eye who is trying to reform after a career as an underworld fixer – but some of his old contacts won't let him go entirely straight. As Known to Evil begins, McGill gets a phone call to go see about a mysterious woman. When he gets to the woman's apartment, she seems to have just been murdered. As has her presumed killer.

Since McGill knows nothing about the victims, even their identities, his involvement would seem to be over. It is of course just beginning. A very big guy behind the scenes in the NYC power structure has an interest in the mysterious woman, but so do various other players ranging from possessive to unhinged. McGill's entry on the crime scene touches off a Rube-Goldberg contraption of a plot that will involve hit men, torturers, assorted fixers, and other folks who can disappear, or make you disappear, for a fee. Meanwhile McGill has family problems (an unfaithful wife, an unfaithful girlfriend, two sons who have gotten mixed up with a Belarusian hooker), and he's also trying to straighten out the life of a once-innocent man whose life he once ruined.

Nearly every chapter introduces somebody we've never met before, and we meet few of them again. It gets a bit exhausting, but it occurs to me that many other private-eye stories are structured this way, including classics of the genre like Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels. The key difference is that Archer always meets strangers, and their comings and goings from his life are explicable as part of the job and part of the alienation of anonymous Southern California.

Leonid McGill's acquaintances all seem to be old friends, one deadlier than the next. There doesn't seem room in a single lifetime to know half of them, certainly not to have grappled them to one's soul with hooks of steel the way that McGill has. In the process of dealing with all his friends and enemies, McGill offers the reader a New York that is a much cozier place than Lew Archer's Santa Teresa; a place more like Easy Rawlins' – Los Angeles, where someone you know is always ready to help or hurt you.

Yet I don't know if the McGill series is a classic in the same way that Mosley's Rawlins novels are. Perhaps it's as easy to explain as Mosley being from L.A. (though he has lived in New York for 40 years now). One gets the sense that his Los Angeles is a deeply known place, and his New York more a map for characters to chase one another around in. Of course fictional places are always illusions, no matter how real they are, so better to say that the Easy Rawlins novels are just more successful illusions.

Mosley, Walter. Known to Evil. 2010. New York: New American Library [Penguin], 2011. PS 3563 .O88456K58