by Walter Mosley
Published by Little, Brown and Company
316 pages, 2003
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
The Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in 1955 is a tough place to live for most African Americans. Bookstore owner Paris Minton is no exception. With the constant threat of violence, robbery or just plain rousting by bigoted white LAPD cops, Paris prefers to stay in his store on Florence Avenue and spend most days reading. As surely as Tuesday follows Monday, however, it isn't long before Tristan "Fearless" Jones is knocking on Paris' door and implicating them both in a sordid mess.
In Fear Itself, the second novel in the Fearless Jones series by author Walter Mosley (the first, Fearless Jones, came out in 2001), Paris is awakened in his "illegal loft space above the bookstore" by Jones at 2:30 in the morning. Fearless strides in on the sleepy, jumpy Paris and spins his latest tale of involved trouble. It seems that Leora Hartman, a young, pretty wife and mother, has asked Jones to find her missing husband, Kit Mitchell. Jones, who takes employment wherever he can, and only when necessary, happens to be working for Mitchell, "selling counterfeit Texan watermelons." Because he has quite the eye for the ladies, he's agreed to help the desperate and attractive Hartman. When Fearless admits to Paris that he doesn't know whether Leora is really Kit Mitchell's wife or is lying for unknown motives (hint, hint), Paris correctly reasons:
That's when I should have stood up and shown Fearless the door. I should have said, No more, brother. I have to get back to sleep. That's because I knew whatever it was he saw in her story was going to bite me on the backside before we were through.
Fearless and Paris rely on each other like blood brothers, partly because Fearless once came to Paris' rescue on a dark street in San Francisco, disarming and beating up a couple of cops who'd stopped Minton for acting "too cocky." Both men know that no matter what, through bad times filled with physical violence or good times occupied by pretty women, each has the other's back. Fearless is a free spirit, yet he lacks the intuitive and deductive abilities of Paris that actually keep them alive during their investigations. Paris is "a small man" who's constantly afraid of getting his neck broken by larger men. Fearless will face an attacker head-on, whereas Paris will hit the floor and look for a window to jump through. Paris admires Fearless in part because he craves his friend's attributes. "Fearless," Paris explains, "was tall and dark, thin and handsome, but mostly he was powerful. He was stronger than any man I'd ever known, and his will was indomitable."
Not surprisingly, it turns out that Leora Hartman has lied to Fearless, and soon Paris and Jones become entangled in a strange case that includes murder. When the deaths of two rich white siblings -- Lawrence and Minna Wexler -- are tied to Mitchell's disappearance, the stakes become very dangerous for black men like Paris and Fearless in racist L.A. Paris is a businessman, though, and when money is thrown at him by several other people who are interested in finding Mitchell, such as Hartman's rich aunt Winifred Fine and the father of the murdered Wexlers, he can't turn away.
The plot gets tricky, and the reader must often flip back and forth to correlate events and characters, which can be distracting. But the events in Fear Itself seem fresh and never contrived. While Paris is able to ferret out from Mitchell's disappearance and the Wexler deaths a plot to kidnap Hartman's son and steal an expensive necklace from Winifred Fine, he senses that something more substantial is going on than he's being told. When Paris happens upon a hidden book in Mitchell's former rooming house (the scene of some funny moments when Paris tries to pass himself off as an about-to-be-married man looking for work), a red flag goes up in the reader's mind, if not in Paris'.
Paris Minton's narrative voice is engaging, mainly because he is frank about his physical vulnerabilities ("A sudden banging on the front door sent a chill down my neck and into my chest") and his generous sexual endowment ("ëIs that real?' she asked me.'"). Despite his admitted timidity, he is willing to jump feet first into a case, if only so he can wrap things up and return to the safety of his bookshop. Although the series is named for his best friend, it is Paris Minton who really drives this train. Fearless is often absent, spending a few days with a woman (no female ever turns Fearless away from her bed). More of Fearless' personality comes out in this second volume, which can only benefit the series. Fearless is a blank canvas culturally, whereas Paris' forthrightness broaches the political, and these books might not make easy reading for white audiences. Mosley is establishing a sequence of novels that confront the racism foisted upon black Americans by their white countrymen, and a particular target is the police. The common daily existence for men such as Paris and Fearless included being rousted by prejudiced cops for no good reason other than their being black, and they were often held in jail for days.
The white folks who populate Fear Itself are for the most part despicable, and they treat blacks as either inferior obstacles to be overcome or necessary means to an end. In a strange mix, when black bondsman Milo Sweet becomes involved in finding Mitchell and his business partner, Bartholomew Perry, he hires a white man, Theodore Timmerman, for the job. But the sadistic Timmerman beats Milo up and almost kills Paris -- stopped in time by Fearless, of course. Timmerman senses that finding Mitchell and Perry will ultimately net him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Maestro Wexler, the tragic father of the slain Lawrence and Minna Wexler, is depicted as living in a "palace." Paris is kidnapped at one point and taken to Wexler, who "sat on a throne." The moral is obvious: Wexler lived arrogantly and used his money and economic power to dominate those who stood in his way. (Even his first name suggests a controlling and orchestrating personality.) The price he paid for his arrogance and greed was the death of his children.
But whites aren't the only ones dissected by Paris' sharp, unsentimental eye. Winifred Fine, a rich black woman who made her fortune in beauty products, is seeking Kit Mitchell as well. Her motives are more personal: Fine is the victim of Mitchell's scheme to steal her necklace. Something else, too, was stolen that she wants back (and everyone else wants), though she refuses to say what it is. While she may be a crime victim, Winifred Fine is primarily a coldhearted businesswoman.
She was like a child. Completely cut off from the world, so that all that was important was her needs and her desires. In her world me and mine had never drawn a breath. The drama and tragedy of everyday people was invisible to her. In a way she was like Maestro Wexler sitting on his throne. I could see where money affected both of them more than race. It was the first time I had ever actually witnessed the power of money and class in forming character.
In many respects, the story of Fear Itself reflects the African-American experience in America. The depiction of Watts and black after-hours clubs and bonds of kinship come up against the historical journey of the Fine family, including their bonds of slavery during the 18th century and continuing on through the Emancipation Proclamation. It is this rare historical record of the Fine family that ultimately brings the death and violence to an end. In a nice touch, once Paris gets his hands on what everyone wants, he is tempted to sell it himself. It takes his best friend, Fearless, to put him on higher ground. Once again, Walter Mosley (still best known for his Easy Rawlins novels, including Bad Boy Brawly Brown) has written a taut mystery that makes the reader privy to the black cultural experience. | August 2003
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.