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 …