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The Conscientious Op

1.

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.

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