I came to you late in life. Nothing personal or anything, but the truth is that I came to genre fiction – to detective novels – late in life. When it comes to fiction, I’m a 19th Century girl myself and always have been. But since I started listening to books in my car, I’ve branched out, reading contemporary writers. I started with your Leonid McGill series – and the quality of your writing walloped me. Your voice, your flow, the percussion and string sections of your prose knocked me on my ass – in the best possible way. I moved from Leonid to Easy Rawlins, and on to your non-detective work.
And then I lucked into your remarkable 2010 novel The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. I’ve worked with elders for many years, so this story got me where I live. I became deeply attached to 91-year-old Ptolemy Grey who has long been losing all ability to remember and to understand the world around him. He knows he has something important to do before he dies, but whatever it is, it hides right out of reach. When the profound love of 17-year-old Robyn Small infuses his life with human emotion again, he makes a deal with the “devil” – a doctor with an experimental drug that briefly gives him back his vigor and focus.
Dear Walter Mosley, I’d call you a writers’ writer and I’d call The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey a sophisticated read that is so engaging that it puts the reader at danger – the kind of book that, if you had to interrupt your consumption of it to go to the store, you would read it out your door and down the steps and across the street putting you in peril of turning an ankle or failing to check that you received the right change. I am a writer, too, but you are something else. You wrote dozens of books before you got into Ptolemy Grey’s head and yet it is an astoundingly fresh hunk of literature.
Ptolemy’s world is small and shrinking while his great-nephew Reggie is looking after him. But when Robyn replaces Reggie, everything changes. She is not truly of Ptolemy’s blood, but she is of his heart. She makes his hovel livable and clean and has such a sincere love for him – and needs him as much as he needs her – that he learns to trust her absolutely. “If you were 50 years older and I was 20 years younger…,” he often says to her wistfully.
Walter Mosley, like a Perkins Gilman you get deeply inside the head of someone being devoured by dementia. You portray poverty and street danger and suspicion and betrayal like a Dickens. You convey the emotional complexities of restricted lives like an Austen. You paint a chunk of American life with all the veracity of a Steinbeck. You even manage to slip a reference to Marx into every Black community you describe in your books.
Dear Walter Mosley, I have finished The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey and I am bereft. Ptolemy is gone, but I am comforted that there are over 30 more Mosley books to read. Thanks, big time.