What do the most powerful men in the world have in common? Most American presidents, it turns out, were seriously into books. Thomas Jefferson, for example, could read in several languages and was such a big collector that the Library of Congress is based on his personal collection.

President Barack Obama is also known to be bookish and was even a sporadic reviewer in his pre-president days. He’s into middlebrow literary fiction, especially best-sellers, and is now and then spotted in Washington, DC bookshops. One interesting pick from his reading list is Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest, The Lowland.

In the old days, however, presidents generally favoured works on politics or economics, history and biographies of important people (such as themselves), though some, like James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, did prefer poetry, and Abraham Lincoln is said to have taken the collected works of Shakespeare with him wherever he went. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had a personal library of 22,000 books, put the Mumbai-born writer Rudyard Kipling above all the rest.

But popular fiction has had a place on many a president’s bedside table. Ulysses Grant was into heroic adventure stories by James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott, while James Garfield had a borrowed copy of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to thank for his initiation into literature.

Getting closer to genuine pulp, John F. Kennedy (JFK) was a fan of the spy thrillers by Ian Fleming, starting from the very first book Casino Royale, while the last film he watched before being assassinated was the adaptation of From Russia With Love (speaking of Russia, both Richard Nixon and George Bush Sr had a soft corner for Leo Tolstoy). The Wild West actor turned president, Ronald Reagan, grew up on a diet of Edgar Rice Burroughs and later, while in office, is known to have enjoyed The Hunt For Red October, a Cold War thriller by Tom Clancy.

But the president best known to have a developed taste for crime fiction is Bill Clinton. Every year, the White House would release his holiday reading list, which apparently often featured thrillers. And just as JFK’s “endorsement" helped the British writer Ian Fleming become big in the US, the fact that Clinton in the early 1990s declared himself a Walter Mosley fan, kickstarted one of the finest crime writing careers in history. Clinton once even invited Mosley to dinner.

On the face of it, these are typical hard-boiled private-eye stories with a hero who survives many hangovers and beatings, while he beds gorgeous ladies, rescues people in distress, solves multiple homicides, and spouts a lot of cool dialogue. So far so good, but what makes the books special is the setting in a segment of American society that has rarely been explored in mainstream fiction. We get to know areas like Watts in Los Angeles, where the mean streets, at least according to Mosley’s novels, are really mean—where right is not always right and wrong may not necessarily be wrong, and there are a few constants that you can bank upon: violence, Bourbon, sex, dollars and racism.

It is a world where nobody can be trusted, especially not white people. “Half the black people I knew would walk an extra mile to avoid straight-forward contact with white people," we read in White Butterfly, a novel about college girls working night-shifts in Watts’ striptease cabarets.

Mosley doesn’t mince words as he investigates social problems through his protagonist. Rawlins isn’t a licensed detective; he has moved from the American south in pursuit of a better life in Los Angeles. When we first meet him (in Devil In A Blue Dress), he’s a freshly laid-off aeroplane mechanic. Unable to pay the mortgage on his house, he becomes, under duress, the local trouble-shooter to whom, a few books down the line, even the police turn with tricky cases—after all, white policemen aren’t very welcome in these parts.

The series becomes an exploration of African-American history in the 20th century, especially those turbulent mid-century decades which saw protests, ethnic riots, segregation, human rights campaigning and the development of various subcultures.

It sounds bleak, but on the other hand, his fictional detective, Easy, is a good-hearted fellow. And although his own marriage collapses and his love life is chaotic, he builds up a small family of adopted children that he rescues from the streets. Mosley’s is a disturbing world, but also somehow full of hope for a better future. And one thing’s for sure—Clinton has good taste in literature.

Zac O’Yeah is the writer of Once Upon A Time In Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout Of Bengaluru

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