Tough-talking, with the dregs of a virtuous heart curdled by the world’s bleak crookedness, the hard-boiled private eye emerged in the 1920s in an obscure magazine, The Black Mask. At the end of the decade and on through the Thirties and Forties he came to glory with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and thereafter with an unending stream of successors, notably Ross Macdonald and, latterly and perhaps less notably, others who keep a cat or go in for gourmet cooking.
Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, brusque-mannered, violent when required, but with a rough chivalrousness, were descendants of the medieval knight-errant. They rode onto the scene. (Well no. They sat in their ramshackle offices nursing failure and a bottle of whiskey, whereupon a beautiful woman would hesitate her way through the scuffed door. She was in trouble, or spelled trouble; either a damsel wronged or else—or also—Morgan-le-Fay.) Then they rode out in a beat-up car and had at the villains, often transformed into good guys; or sometimes good guys conjured into villains. Temptresses dangled their allure at them but they almost always resisted, even a touch violently. They were ambushed and mauled; they mauled back, and finally, by detection—a modern equivalent of the undoing of spells?—they put things right, with some collateral damage to themselves and to any others who happened by. Then they more or less rode off, alone.
Their solitude is what distinguishes Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe from the Los Angeles private eye Easy Rawlins. Easy was created by the African-American writer Walter Mosley, who followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, and then set off across a country of his own. Cynical, seemingly, and independent as he is, he is not a man alone.
Easy has appeared seven times, beginning in 1990 with Devil in a Blue Dress. Recently he made his eighth appearance in Little Scarlet. Frequently the recurring protagonist in a chain of genre novels wears thin. (Who can remember Tom Sawyer Abroad or Tom Sawyer, Detective? Alice luckily never got past the two sides of the looking-glass.) But owing to the richness of Easy’s character, Little Scarlet makes the previous volumes, for all their pungency and street smarts, seem almost like practice efforts.
Several elements have distinguished Mosley’s books from the run of hardboiled novels. Easy is soft-boiled, for one thing. He is black, though here he has predecessors in Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, the very different, far more violent detective pair in Chester Himes’s 1960s Harlem series; and in successors such as Derek Strange, the investigator created a few years ago by George Pelecanos (of Greek, not African-American, descent). Derek Strange, too, is different: expertly delineated, slicker and more controlled, but lacking the messy Easy’s passion to assert and better the position of black people and chastise the failings that weaken it.
Graham Greene wrote a series of entertaining thrillers (Ministry of Fear, Stamboul Express) until, with Brighton Rock, it became evident that such books could also be a means to suggest the larger and more dangerous discords of its pre-war time. Chandler and Hammett conveyed a place, a culture, a look—Los Angeles tacky and, in the mansion scenes, even tackier—and a social condition: the shabby deprivation and steely inequalities of the Depression and its aftermath. Their characters and settings were built around the largely white city of their time. Mosley has created a richly described parallel world out of black struggles, lingo, violence, and oppression by white power. Set in the Fifties and Sixties, the South Los Angeles of his novels is a place aware of its near-colonial occupation: mostly behind the scenes—except, say, when five cop cars, guns bristling through the windows, stop a black driver. But that description is felt all around the edges and at every breathing moment.
In a powerful and eloquent passage in Little Scarlet, which is set during the Watts riots of 1965, Easy tries to explain this constant awareness to Bonnie, his lover. She is black, but as an Air France flight attendant, she can remove herself from time to time:
For most people the pain they experience is just inside them. I hit you in the head but that’s you and me. You could leave, find another man. You could go to work and none of the other women got a big knot on their heads. But if you come from down in Watts or Fifth Ward or Harlem, every soul you come upon has been threatened and beaten and jailed. If you have kids they will be beaten. And no matter how far back you remember, there’s a beatin’ there waiting for you. And so when you see some man stopped by the cops and some poor mother cryin’ for his release it speaks to you. You don’t know that woman, you don’t know if the man bein’ arrested has done something wrong. But it doesn’t matter. Because you been there before. And everybody around you has been there before. And it’s hot, and you’re broke, and people have been doin’ this to you because of your skin for more years than your mother’s mother can remember.
It is Mosley at his best, transporting the reader, with a mixture of eloquence and grit, into the fever that could make Watts explode, and, later, would ignite the riot that followed the police mauling of Rodney King. Hammett’s and Chandler’s detectives show their rough decency and passion for justice inside a mask of detachment. They stand morally apart: a certain tarnished purity protected by resignation. Mosley’s Easy, by contrast, is not protected: he spills his anger out all over. He is far more judgmental; mainly about white injustice but also about the excuses, surrenders, and contentiousness of his people. He puts himself forward time and again, to resist as he can, and to help what he can; and he is sometimes tarnished in the process.
When Easy made his first appearance fifteen years ago in Devil in a Blue Dress, the time was 1948, and he was a young man three years out of rugged combat in World War II. He’d volunteered to get away from the black ghetto and the vortex of crime into which he and his friends were falling. If Easy fought the whites’ harsh abuses of fifty years ago, he also tried—for himself and for his people—to pry apart the trap that self-destroying violence lays for self-respecting intransigence. The distinction matures, as Easy will.
As the series begins, Easy is desperate, having been laid off from his factory job for failing to suck up to the white foreman. Foreclosure of the mortgage on his shabby ghetto house, with its dusty mango tree, means moral obliteration. This is another developing theme as, in subsequent books, Easy betters himself while remaining the street defender of his community. In a world ruled by whites, to own something is the difference between black pride and black servitude.
In Devil in a Blue Dress Easy starts to make his way toward the always reluctant role of private investigator that he will take on in the later novels. His career starts in a bar and with a quasi-criminal entanglement. The bartender, a former black boxer and a seeming ally, introduces him to a white man, sleek, jovial, and eventually murderous, who offers him money to find Daphne Minot, a young blonde who frequents the bars, the clubs, and the black men in the area. It is on behalf of a friend, he says.
A request—with its shadow of threat—to find someone, usually white, is the customary opening of the Easy novels. In White Butterfly (1992) the search is for the presumed killer of a white stripper; in Little Scarlet, the apparent murderer of a young black woman. After Devil, those who make the request are usually Los Angeles detectives. They seek out Easy as someone who can work neighborhoods that are closed to them. This gives him power, though always precariously, and far from corrupting him, it lets him grow and change.
The plots, on the other hand, tend to be variations in a recurring pattern. In Devil, for instance, Easy goes to a black cabaret and a brothel, talks to a bouncer, a bar girl, a venerable jazz great, a lethal liquor lord, a sternly upright older friend, and an assortment of grifters and street cronies. Some of these encounters do little to advance matters. Mosley never minds slowing the action to add pile to his textures, and readers may find themselves sometimes ankle-deep. The plot moves along, nonetheless, and if there is often too much of it, the confrontations can be spellbinding, what with betrayals, turnabouts, mayhem (with Easy its frequent victim), and killings: in the case of Devil in a Blue Dress the murder of a relatively innocent bar girl, the lethal liquor lord, and a repellent Mexican-American politician who keeps a little boy as his sex toy.
As for Daphne herself, she is involved with two prominent white men and the black liquor mogul. She is all scams and sex, some of it with Easy. He is a relentless pursuer but not an avenger: he has seen too many of his own people driven to crime to act as judge; and a hard-time, good-time blonde precariously making her way through a jungle of power and money could almost be one of their number. Even Suggs, the white detective in Little Scarlet, for another example, could be counted, oddly, as among the victims. He and Easy begin in antagonism and end somewhere between wary partnership and edgy sympathy. Suggs, too, has been used by the system.
Beginning with Devil in a Blue Dress, the Easy Rawlins series of thrillers was an immediate success, critical as well as commercial. Reviewers detected something far more interesting than the run of private eye fiction, or even the front of the run. R.W.B. Lewis called him “a literary artist as well as a master of mystery.” But during the Nineties, having published four of the Easy novels in five years, Mosley struck out in other directions. There was a sense—not uncommon when a writer finds himself taken over by his creation—that he was attempting to escape, as if to protest that while Easy Rawlins might be Mosley, Mosley is not Easy Rawlins.
In 1995 Mosley departed from the thriller genre to publish RL’s Dream, whose main character is an old-time blues hero. Later in the decade, he published two works of science fiction and two short polemical works, of which “Workin’ on the Chain Gang” (2000) is the more interesting. In it, he argues that the long experience of African-Americans with chains has taught them ingenious ways to guard a measure of internal freedom. It’s time for the rest of America to learn the skill, Mosley suggests, since it wears chains too but doesn’t see them.
In the allegorical novel The Man in My Basement (2004), Anniston Bennet, “a small white man,” appears one day at the Sag Harbor home of Charles Blakey, a middle-class black. (That “small” is essential for Mosley, who exercises a one-pants-leg-at-a-time derisiveness toward the monsters of the world, of whom Bennet turns out to be one.) Blakey had pretty much gone off the rails after he was fired from his bank job for creeping embezzlement. Now Bennet offers him $50,000 to be allowed to live two months in his basement. He has a cage built for himself; Blakey is to use an old lock from slave days, and provide food, water, and waste management.
For a while a grimly ironic reversal seems promised. Bennet claims to be doing penance, and we assume it is for the history of slavery. Turning the key to lock his prisoner in, though, Blakey feels sudden fear. Bennet “was empowered by the fact of his helplessness. And I was at risk.” It is a mirror image of the thought that whites’ fear of blacks has its root in their own history as the oppressor. Captor and voluntary captive (who will eventually kill himself) engage in vaguely philosophical question-and-answer sessions. Bennet, a capitalist soldier of fortune, speaks of crimes he’s committed on behalf of shadowy first-world corporations which exploit the third world. One—perhaps a caricature of overseas medical research—was to deliver an African baby to a rich Westerner who was curious to see whether his dog would bring it up like Romulus and Remus. The dog ate it.
However remarkable the moral and social energy of these recent books is, it is still the Easy novels that are the real medium for that energy: the very rhythms, patterns, and constraints of the thriller allow Mosley the freedom to play with and against them. This is true, too, although differently, of his two short story collections, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1998) and Walkin’ the Dog (1999). Mosley’s voice carries furthest as he expresses and transcends the experience of the hard streets, turbulent lives, and chained vitality of black Los Angeles and evokes with dead accuracy its lyrical chat and backchat.
The stories are vignettes of resurrection as well as resistance. Their protagonist is Socrates Fortlow, a huge, middle-aged black ex-convict who thinks of his mighty fists as “rock breakers” and has learned the hard way (twenty-seven years for murder and rape) that enduring power comes from keeping them in check. Having known evil and its futile consequences in himself, he exercises a gritty moral and physical authority in his derelict neighborhood. He can be paternal with a boy involved in a deadly street fight whom he tentatively weans, with a chicken dinner, away from violence. He issues a sardonic lesson to a friend, who is betraying his wife, by threatening to make time with her himself. At a diner he puts down a braggart who flaunts the money he has made in stickups: his crimes, Socrates insists, are being paid for by other blacks whom the police treat as criminals; indiscriminately, violently. “You just dressin’ good, eatin’ like a pig. But when the bill come due I’m the one got to pay it. Me an’ all the rest out here.” And in the most comically acerbic of the stories, Socrates, who lives by collecting bottles and dresses like a street bum, conducts a siege of a white supermarket, turning up day after day to demand a job, even though he has to take three buses to get there. Finally, reciting the antidiscrimination ordinances with eloquent ferocity, he intimidates the beleaguered manager into hiring him.
Socrates triumphs, one way or the other, but there is little that is pat or cloying about his victories. He is a ragged soldier; and for Mosley a model for what goes to make up a black hero: wisdom paid for at the cost of bitter forbearance, sly wit, and the hard-won knowledge that the brain fights better than the rock breakers. An O’Henryish touch is felt at times but it hardly matters. If there is sentimentality, it is earned: each of Socrates’s victories grows out of tragedy and risks slipping back into it.
What is glimpsed in the Socrates stories is fully developed and with more complexity through the voice of Ezekiel (Easy) Porterhouse Rawlins. Easy has a life. Over the seventeen years between Devil in a Blue Dress, set in 1948, and the Watts riots in Little Scarlet, he grows and changes. His forays into the streets, hounding killers, drug dealers, and archconspirators, and dealing with the police who alternately harass him and seek his help: these, increasingly, are only part of his life, though they remain to frame his story, the necessary war in his “War and (ever more elaborated) Peace.”
With the overabundant male pride of his earlier days, Easy withheld his more vulnerable emotions from his wife, Regina; and, in White Butterfly, she leaves him for one of his friends. Now, in Little Scarlet, he has learned to share all manner of intimacy with the flight attendant Bonnie, though an edge of danger remains. He has an adopted son, Juice, the sexually abused child in Devil, who is traumatized but in all ways affectionate, except that for years he is literally unable to speak to someone who is a father figure. Feather, Easy’s voluble little daughter, whom he adopted after her mother, the stripper of White Butterfly, was murdered, interprets for Juice: “He don’t like you to talk to, Daddy,” she explains. “But that’s OK because he love you too.”
As the Easy Rawlins books progress, Easy’s house becomes more and more the lion’s retreat. As a bachelor father and then, together with Bonnie, he cooks plain but comforting food: hamburgers, lemonade, lamb shanks, okra, collard greens, pancakes, and butter-grilled ham—though in a later book we get a peek at almond slivers through thin-sliced beans. His reading mounts: the Phaedo, Mark Twain, Marcus Aurelius, Zora Neale Hurston.
As the years go by, he expands from his first hard-held little house to larger properties. By the time the police call upon him again for his street connections, during the Watts outbreak in Little Scarlet, he is doing well. It’s important not so much for its own sake as for a way to deal from strength with the white world and especially with the authorities: enemies for the most part, even when he is working with them. At the end of Scarlet the hard-line deputy police commissioner comes as close to thanks as he can bring himself. “You don’t like me. I understand that. You and I are on opposite sides of the street. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have common interests.”
They do, in fact, if a pre-Linnaean taxonomy (a seal is a fish because both swim with flipper-shaped fins or fin-shaped flippers) is applied to social morality. Easy, too, doesn’t want his neighborhood to burn. But nothing more fundamental. “The only thing we have in common is what we hate about each other,” Easy replies.
Easy wields many certainties, but certainty itself is a white luxury. The supreme example of his moral precariousness is in his relations with two lifelong street buddies. One is Jackson Blue, a computer genius and an un- trustworthy snake. “Jackson was smart enough to be the first man murdered on the moon,” Easy reflects; the skepticism is deep and so is the troubled loyalty. The street is part of Easy, even while he fights to transform it.
Above all there’s the recurring figure of Mouse, seemingly killed off in Little Yellow Dog, sixth in the series (1996), and brought gleefully back in Little Scarlet, virtually by popular demand. Small, quiet, and toting weapons ranging from a tiny ankle pistol to something resembling a cannon, Mouse is a killer. Not a stone killer, a lava killer. Mouse erupts and the pressure comes from within: from centuries of forced black subservience and suppressed black revolt. He is Easy’s childhood friend, utterly loyal, frequently his rescuer, though when he is under strain his hands shake and even Easy is in danger. “Standing side by side with him,” the latter reflects in Black Betty, “was like pressing up against a porcupine.” Easy soothes, admonishes, backs away, and returns to admonish some more. They are the id and superego, with Mouse the most distinctive of ids.
Yet even these two change. Having gone straight by taking a janitor job in Little Yellow Dog—just before his apparent death—Mouse ends up in Little Scarlet as a picaresque master profiteer, organizing a giant trailer rig to haul loot from the Watts rioting and reselling it from a meticulously arranged warehouse display. Jackson Blue puts on glasses and a Brooks Brothers suit in order to land a corporate job. There is comedy in these incidents, the kind that in genre fiction or Hollywood can be easy satire, with both character and reader or audience as the butt. But Mosley doesn’t stop there. Mouse’s killer tendencies and Jackson’s trickery are wrong—Easy has his values—but he makes clear that they are also ways of survival in the world they have been born into. Easy has his own rage, as well.
Little Scarlet opens when detectives come to ask him to trace a white man rumored to have raped and murdered Nola Payne, a young black woman. They need to have him caught. It would be important to have a scapegoat to demonstrate color-blind justice: a notion hardly evident before, but ignited suddenly by the Watts fires, and aimed at keeping the flames from spreading. The chain of encounters and discoveries that follow are handled far more tautly and dramatically than in the earlier books. From the start, Easy punctures the cops’ arrogant assumption that he’ll do what they demand; punctiliously insisting on courtesy not just for himself but for the young white hospital receptionist they try to brush by to view Nola’s body. When a detective captain comes into the hospital and begins to question him, there is a standoff. Easy: “And your name is?” Captain: “I’m the one in charge.” Easy: “Well if you’re in charge, then may I be excused?” The name is the currency of respect. The impasse is only broken when a man standing quietly to one side rebukes the captain. He is the hard-line deputy commissioner, now obliged to propitiate. I never do this, the somewhat mellowed Easy reflects to himself, but “the riots were still going on in my chest.”
He learns from the doctors that Nola had had sex before she died but with no sign of rape. Talking to neighbors on the scene he learns that a white man, caught in Watts during the rioting, had taken refuge in Nola’s house. It is this man that the police want found as their convenient suspect.
Yet wandering about the neighborhood, talking to householders, street punks, a groupie who tries to attach herself to him, Easy puts together a different story. He forces one of the punks to turn over the registration of the white man’s car, stolen from the block. He finds the man himself, a fellow employee of Nola’s. She’d sheltered him for three days from the rioting, and they’d made love. When the streets quieted he made a pre-dawn escape, witnessed only by a black derelict.
Easy resumes his wandering, his meetings, his talks. He tries to trace the derelict, finds a shelter he’d lived in, is beaten by a gang of young men, and finally comes upon the man’s makeshift shanty. There he finds evidence tying him to Nola’s death; and also to that of as many as twenty-one other young black women. It was the killer’s obsession: they all had sex with white men. Easy had previously suspected him of another killing, gathered evidence, and reported it to the police. But without the political pressure built up by the Watts riots they’d felt safe ignoring him. After all, it was only a black bum killing black women.
Hence Easy’s rage: the core of this admirable book and its mix of thriller and dissection of race and class in an American city in the 1960s. (Although there is a self-conscious digression or two, and an elaborate ending that ties more ends together than we really care to hold.) The killer, it seems, is the son of a white man and a light-skinned black woman who has disowned him: hence his obsession. She and the derelict die after a confrontation and a couple of shoot-outs.
As Easy looks at the photographs of the slaughtered women, rage pre-empts the embarrassment he might have felt recalling an earlier uneasy indulgence of his two outlaw friends. He’d made up a phony recommendation to help get Jackson Blue his corporate job; and he’d ridden along with Mouse in the loot truck. “I was happy to have Jackson on the inside of the world that ignored the women on my desk. I would have put Mouse in the White House if I could have.”