Walter Mosley’s latest hard-boiled hero, Leonid McGill, is such an entertaining guy to spend time with that he makes some of the more sloppily plotted sections of Mosley’s latest book glide by. Known To Evil is less traditional mystery than guided walking tour of the New York City underworld with a criminal-turned-good-guy as a guide, but Mosley’s talent for drawing shady underworld types in a handful of sentences remains strong.
Ostensibly, Known To Evil traces McGill’s attempts to find a young woman who disappeared from a friend’s apartment after the friend is shot dead and the shooter is fatally stabbed. McGill is there at the behest of a rich, powerful man who refuses to explain his connection to the missing girl, a connection that seems to have drawn out all of the city’s lowlifes. It’s a pretty good kernel for a mystery, but Mosley doesn’t bother introducing suspects, twists, or anything like that. Most readers can probably guess the mystery’s ins and outs just from the description above.
That said, the pleasures of a Mosley novel almost never have anything to do with outguessing the author. Mosley isn’t an especially twisty plotter. He’s far more interested in building the world his characters inhabit, and investigating their motivations and backstories. And McGill—with his constant guilt over his dark past and his connections in every dark corner of the city—is a hell of a protagonist for a mystery novel. While his hard-boiled narration can be a little overwrought in places (“The big white guy read my smile the way Barack Obama read the hearts of the American people”), Leonid’s devil-may-care approach to such moral issues as marital fidelity and his inability to get into one scrape without getting into a dozen others keeps the book’s central plot from feeling like a series of foregone conclusions.
At times, this makes the novel feel slightly too busy. Around the midpoint, Leonid is balancing six or seven different urgent problems and bouncing them off each other. While the book doesn’t do anything so stupid as to have all of the problems solved when the central mystery is solved, a few do disappear too conveniently. Then one of those problems resurfaces so abruptly at the end that it almost seems as though Mosley had forgotten about it. By far the most compelling section of the novel—Leonid’s efforts to keep a former businessman whose life he ruined out of jail (or worse)—often gets short shrift, as the book is just juggling too many things at once.
But complaining about Known To Evil’s plot almost feels petty. The enjoyment comes from heading into dive bars and abandoned cemeteries with Leonid as he attempts to save his sons from an irate Romanian pimp, or procure the services of a mostly retired psychopathic killer. The novel is all about our seediest dreams of New York City alleyways in a pitch-black night, and Mosley and McGill make great tour guides.