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Walter Mosley on the return of his most famous character in Little Green

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For a while, it was a common sight to see Walter Mosley on the streets of downtown Durham. Nine years ago, Mosley began showing up at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, where he also served as an advisory board member.

But he wasn't there just to take in the movies. He was also there to give a lucky filmmaker the "Seeds of War" award. This $5,000 prize was given to a filmmaker whose film best explored the causes and effects of war. But after four years of handing out the award, he stopped attending the fest in 2008. Why?

"It's been so long ago, I don't know why," says Mosley, 61, on the phone from his New York home. "I mean, there was no terrible reason. I wasn't unhappy with anybody. I moved on circling to other things—you know, people do that."

Considering that Mosley is so prolific he could make Stephen King feel like a slacker, his talk of moving on to the next thing makes sense. One of the country's most respected writers of crime fiction and other genres, the man seems to drop a new literary work every six months.

For his latest, Little Green, he went back to the creation that earned him his renown: Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, an African-American private investigator living and solving cases in Mosley's hometown of Los Angeles. Those who read the last Rawlins book, 2007's Blonde Faith, may be surprised that he's back, since he was last seen driving off a cliff, presumably to his death.

After writing 11 Rawlins novels (many of which included a color in the title), Mosley felt he should take a break from the character for fear the stories would get stale.

"It wasn't that I was taking it lightly or for granted, [but] I wasn't bringing anything new to it," he says.

After spending a few years writing other projects, he reassessed his relationship to the character.

"I realized that I didn't really need to stop writing it completely," he says. "I just needed to take a break from it and come back and start doing it again.

Rawlins returns in Little Green, which is set in 1967. Not even close to fully recuperated from a two-month coma, he returns to his private investigator duties. This time, he tracks down a missing young black man, a task that takes him even deeper into Los Angeles' seedy, savage underworld. All through the book, Rawlins wonders if he is, in fact, dead and just walking through a purgatorial nightmare. Who can blame him? The depravity is extreme: The story features brutal hippie drug dealers and pimps who have no qualms about locking up underage girls in trunks for days.

Mosley admits that he puts Rawlins, and readers, through a journey that is more dark, dangerous and, ultimately, redemptive than in his previous books.

"This book is the one and only book I wrote about resurrection," he says. "I think there are [Rawlins books] that are, like, on the same level of intensity. But this book is very intense. ... And, in the last book, not only did he almost die, he thought he was dead. He thought his life was over.

"There was just a lot of real sadness in that last novel. In the new one, he's still feeling that sadness and having to come back from it."

For Rawlins, nothing comes, well, easy: He's a black man living in mid-20th-century California, where white people keep him fully aware of his blackness at every waking moment. Not to mention that Rawlins is a character who stays loyal to his friends—even those who are criminals and murderers with extremely itchy trigger fingers.

You'd think Hollywood would want to adapt more Easy Rawlins novels, either on the big or small screen, but so far there's been only one: Denzel Washington memorably played Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress, the 1995 Carl Franklin version of Mosley's first published novel.

It's a source of frustration for Mosley.

"A lot of work that makes it to the screen is more intent on style and the simplicity of character," he says. "So, you have a character who's a certain type—a very recognizable type. He's a man of action or he's a man like Sherlock Holmes. He's just simply in his own brain and he figures out things. It's not the broader, kind of messy life that Easy lives. It's much more complex to do something like that."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Not so Easy."

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