Known To Evil

By Walter Mosley

Riverhead. 326 pp. $25.95

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Reviewed by Dan DeLuca


Walter Mosley has left Easy Rawlins in the past in Los Angeles and moved east to modern-day New York with Leonid Trotter McGill.

"LT" is a trained-boxer private dick with a criminal past and a jaundiced eye. He's a middle-aged, African American, contemporary Chandleresque tough guy with a Thou shalt not kill but may happily beat thine adversary to a pulp moral code.

He's a short, stocky, balding, guilt-ridden, hot-tempered detective with a soft heart who is locked in a loveless marriage with a cold Scandinavian beauty even more disloyal than he is, and he's raising three children, only one of them his own.

A trusted fixer for powerful Manhattan elites and sworn enemy to many a member of law enforcement, the well-read son of a Communist father who renamed himself Tolstoy, McGill between occupies a dubiously obtained office suite in a gleaming Manhattan skyscraper. But he does his dirty work down in the streets, where he's simultaneously trying to serve his clients, protect his family, and right his own past wrongs.

Known to Evil is the second in a sequence that could be as fruitful as Mosley's Easy Rawlins series, which began in post-World War II L.A. with Devil in a Blue Dress (1990). McGill first appeared last year in The Long Fall. Known to Evil enriches McGill's character by filling out details of his sordid past only hinted at in the first book.

The prime reason for reading Mosley is his protagonists' authoritative, compelling narrative voice. McGill is in his 50s, and he's lived a rich, shady life as a black man in America. Not telling the truth is a key part of his business, so he's believable when letting on that "I once studied the Method under a wonderful thespian named Anja Kliejer. I had no intention of going on stage, but I figured my profession required believable emotional pretense from time to time." And he's engaging when recalling his mysteriously aphoristic childhood conversations with the wayward father who home-schooled him on Hegel, Marx, and Bakunin.

McGill is a likable, if deeply flawed, companion. And that's a good thing, because Known to Evil is packed with far too much plot. The main thread, which has several complications of its own, concerns shadowy powerbroker Alphonse Rinaldi who hires McGill to find a missing young woman for reasons that are unclear, but brings our hero into satisfying conflict with various cold-blooded types.

There are several subplots. One involves McGill trying to do right by an innocent man named Ron Sharkey who "was a metaphor for well over twenty years of criminal activity on my part," and is now a downward-spiraling junkie. Another concerns McGill's imperiled son Dmitri, who has fallen in love with a Russian prostitute hunted by her ruthless Romanian sex-slave-trader pimp.

On top of that, there's a particular unbelievable conflict with the obnoxious building manager who has inexplicably won the heart of McGill's true love, the beautiful Aura.

Mosley is skilled at keeping all these balls in air, and the pages turning. But some of the story lines are too glib and wrapped up too easily, particularly the one concerning his children. McGill's hit-man pal Hush is a bit too similar to Mouse, Rawlins' murderous friend.

Reading two McGill mysteries back-to-back began to feel like too much of a good thing. I don't know that I would recommend spending that much concentrated time with Mosley's new franchise. The author has published 36 books since 1990 and works a little too fast for his own good.

However, checking back to visit McGill once a year or so - the rate at which a new book will likely appear, judging by Mosley's track record - seems like a perfectly agreeable proposition.

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com.