Walter Mosley

Easy Rawlins - amateur sleuth by way of helping troubled friends
Paris Minton - used bookstore owner in 1950s
Socrates Fortlow - ex-convict and hero
Above are all black men living in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California
Leonid McGill - NYC P.I.

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"Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark AUG 22, 2000)

Unlike the Easy Rawlins series, the protagonist in this novel is not involved in sleuthing. Nevertheless, he's a hero. Socrates Fortlow is an ex-convict who served 27 years in an Indiana jail for a double homicide and rape. Eight years earlier, after his discharge, he found his way to Los Angeles where he more or less squats in a cramped two room apartment in an abandoned building in Watts. He's been getting by collecting bottles for the redemption center and repairing things to sell at a flea market.

What one notices first about Socrates is his hands, his huge "rock-breaking hands." Hands not only capable, but accomplished in murder. And like his hands, Socrates carries those murders with him every single day. But that's not enough to keep Socrates humble. He places a single piece of artwork above his small folding table, a picture of a painting of the sun shining on a black woman in red. When Socrates looks at the picture he thinks of his long ago beloved Theresa, yet it is not even a picture of her. Why it reminds him of Theresa it that it embodies the defiance and judgment of the words that she never said to him, but, he believes, should have. It is this knowing that he was wrong that makes him who is. As he explains to Darryl later in the novel, "We all got to be our own judge, l'il brother. 'Cause if you don't know when you wrong, then yo' life ain't worf a damn."

But this philosophy did not come to Socrates while in prison. He's the first to say he didn't learn a thing there, he was too busy killing. It wasn't until he was out that he learned how to tame the violence in himself - when he suddenly realized that all his actions were because he "was the best kinda rule-followin' niggah." Killing his own folks and letting himself get caught for it. Now Socrates looks beyond the rules, at the real truth of the situation. Because "rules is always made to put money in another man's pocket; food in somebody else's children's mouths."

And this is what makes Socrates a hero. He looks beyond the obvious to the consequences of the behavior. For example, in a encounter with a "business man" showing off his wealth in a neighborhood diner, Socrates keeps egging the man on to find out exactly how the man makes his money. Proudly the kid explains how he doesn't rip money of his fellow black brothers and sisters, instead he heads off to the rich white neighborhoods, dresses in funky, smelly clothes and snatches purses in the parking lot. Then he quickly strips away the funky clothes to reveal a business suit and drives away in his fancy foreign car, invisible to suspicion. Socrates angrily points out that this kid is indeed robbing his fellow black man, because "when you all through people gonna look at me like I'm shit. They scared'a me 'cause you out there pretendin' that you're me robbin' them."

For Socrates, the only successful rebellion is the one in which each person loves and cares for another, essentially when he can lend a helping hand. In helping young Darryl to understand, Socrates takes him to Marvane Street. On Marvane Street is a boarded up drug house, empty lots where the homeless stay, The Young African's organizational offices, and a house with eleven windows with all its shades down. There's also a rooming house run by Luvia, where Socrates' friend Right Burke lives. According to Right and Socrates, the house with eleven windows is an undercover operation to watch The Young Africans day and night. Ironically they estimate the expense of the operation could easily feed and house everyone on Marvane Street. But the point that Socrates wants Darryl to see isn't the hypocrisy of a cops hiding in a house. The real lesson is Luvia who offers her home to a few poor men and women. "You don't teach people, you love 'em. You don't get a house and a printin' press and put up a fence. You do like Luvia. You open up your arms and your pocketbook. You don't have to worry 'bout no cops."

No matter how much Socrates might like to remind everyone what a bad man he is, it's clear that this is about the best hearted hero to come to life in a novel in sometime. Socrate's philosophy may be targeted at the black community, but his observations benefit all. As I was reading this novel, it was easy to understand the leap from fiction to Mosley's recent publication of his first nonfiction book, Working on the Chain Gang, in which he expands his philosophy to talk about all of America.

The style of this novel reads like a series of short stories, which many of them were published as such originally. Every chapter or story holds nuggets of surprise and truth in their own right, but Mosley pulls these stories together into one succinct novel, proving that the sum of its parts is greater than the whole.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 63 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Easy Rawlins Mysteries:

Socrates Fortlow novels:

Paris Minton and Fearless Jones Mysteries:

Leonid McGill, P.I. series:

Crosstown to Oblivion:

Nonfiction:

Movies from books:

 

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Book Marks:

More reviews of Walter Mosley's books:

 

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About the Author:

Walter MosleyWalter Mosley, born in 1952, grew up in Los Angeles and has been at various times in his life a potter, a computer programmer, and a poet.

His books have been translated into twenty languages. Devil in a Blue Dress received the 1990 Shamus Award for "Best First P.I. Novel" from the Private Eye Writers of America and was also made into a movie starring Denzel Washington. His collection of short stories featuring Socrates Fortlow, a 60 year-old philosophical ex-convict, in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was also latered released as a movie.

He has been the president of the Mystery Writers of America and a member of the executive board of the PEN American Center and Founder of its Open Book Committee and on the board of directors of the National Book Awards. In 2002, Walter Mosley won a Grammy for "Best Liner Notes" for a Richard Pryor box set.

Mosley lives in New York City.

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