Crime Waves

Walkin' the Dog

Walter Mosley <em>Serpent's Tail, 260pp £14.99</em>

ISBN 1852426500

A Gat

While crime writers lament the difficulties of maintaining a series character, Walter Mosley has created another expertly drawn hero, better even than his first. With Easy Rawlins, the African-American war veteran and unofficial investigator, Mosley turned the private-eye novel on its head; with Socrates Fortlow, an ex-convict forced to define his own morality in a lawless world, he has written an altogether different and more ambitious book.

Walkin' the Dog, Fortlow's second appearance, is not a crime novel, but a series of scenes in which Socrates faces the responsibilities that freedom entails. Comparatively few dramas happen here - in fact, there's no real plot to speak of. But with this story of how a man learns to live with himself and those around him, Mosley creates a unique character and surely one of the wisest novels of the year.

Nearly a decade after his release from prison, still trapped in his own mistakes, Socrates is approaching 60 and living in a makeshift corridor between two disused furniture stores. But he now has new ties and more to lose: a steady job; a two-legged dog called Killer; and a boy he treats as a son, whom he rescued from a gangland existence. Socrates has opened his life to hope, but this becomes increasingly fragile as the police continue to make him a prime suspect for every crime in the neighbourhood. It is this conflict that gives Walkin' the Dog its edge. Although Mosley has consistently written about black male heroes, his cast of characters is multiracial and reflects the reality of Los Angeles today. He examines a relationship rather than a hierarchy, and his wars are never solely between black and white, but between men and women, between black men who have authority and those who don't, between a man's conscience and the violence of his past.

There are many remarkable things about this novel, not least Mosley's lyrical prose and his dialogue, which is as deceptively casual and improvised as the music that haunts Socrates's sleep.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, however, is the way in which small, daily triumphs and seemingly insignificant moments add up to Socrates's ultimate victory - his ability to stand up for himself without killing. Despite the under-lying violence and age-old hatreds, Walkin' the Dog is more about goodness and compassion than transgression. It is a meditation on how one man can make a difference.

In Ernest J Gaines's 1983 novel, A Gathering of Old Men - at last published in Britain - it isn't one man who counts, but 18 men. As in Walkin' the Dog, this impressive book explores the point at which a stand against brutality and corruption becomes necessary. On a sugar-cane plantation, a Cajun farmer is shot dead. A 30-year-old white woman claims to have done it, as do 18 elderly black men, each armed with a shotgun. Faced with such solidarity, and despite being convinced of one man's guilt, the sheriff is powerless to do anything but wait for the lynch mob that the murdered man's father is expected to lead.

Set in the 1970s, this is not a simple indictment of race relations in the American south, but a multi-layered tale told with dignity. One act of unexpected retaliation for years of Cajun cruelty unleashes long-suppressed emotions; who pulled the trigger becomes less important than the justification that each man had for doing so. These include personal reasons, such as the beating of a son or the rape of a sister, and shared resentments, such as the destruction of heritage or the lack of respect for black soldiers returning from war.

Gaines captures the achievement of these men, who are courageous after 70 years of hanging their heads in fear. As the tension builds to a moving and unexpected conclusion, there is a sympathy for both sides, if not for the generation that started the violence, at least for the sons and daughters expected to perpetuate it.