Walter Mosley owes his booming career to the seductive charm of Easy Rawlins, reluctant detective, the hero of Devil in a Blue Dress and five subsequent bestsellers. In Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, a book of discrete but linked stories, Mosley introduces a new hero, Socrates Fortlow, an aging ex-con with a violent streak and a thirst for moral virtue. His huge hands are known as "the rock breakers."
The penitent Socrates is every bit as appealing as Easy. Though jailed 27 years for rape and murder (crimes committed while blind drunk and then bitterly regretted), he has emerged from prison determined to "do good"—no simple task when you're a black man with a criminal record living in Watts, subject to daily indignities of racism and poverty. Add up the deep thinking that goes with his name and the high impact of his nickname (Socco), throw in a heap of festering guilt, and you have a turbulent, darkly compelling character.
But Socrates is pretty much all Mosley has to offer. Most of the stories are thin on plot and action, and the settings are sketchy. Philosophical noodling is a poor substitute for narrative pull. Until Mosley gives his hero something to do, we're left with a character in search of a novel. (Norton, $23)