In 1961, John F. Kennedy was president of the United States, Martin Luther King was leading civil rights demonstrators in Alabama and Georgia, and Easy Rawlins was searching for Black Betty out of South Central Los Angeles.
"Black Betty" is Walter Mosley's latest novel, and Easy Rawlins is his private eye, just as Phillip Marlowe was alter ego for Raymond Chandler in that same city, and Sam Spade served that purpose for Dashiell Hammet four hundred and some miles farther north in San Francisco. I mention Chandler and Hammett and their private detectives, Marlowe and Spade, because I think Mosley and Rawlins fit that mold. The writer and his private eye are tough, shrewd, and knowledgeable about their cities, and they know the things, the good and the bad, that makes those cities move.
Easy Rawlins is raising two adopted children--Jesus, a little Mexican boy he rescued from a brothel, and Feather, a little girl of mixed black and white parentage, and Easy is doing all he can as a single parent to bring them up well. Easy is originally from the South and he cooks his children scrambled eggs, grits and bacon for breakfast, and hamburgers at night--when he is at home. When he is in the streets searching for Black Betty, an assignment offered him by Saul Lynx, a white private detective of suspicious honesty (who thinks Rawlins can get more information than he in black South Central L.A.), then Easy Rawlins can be as tough with the bad guys as he is tender with his children who are always on his mind. He keeps reminding himself that he ought to give up this line of work and get a regular job to support himself and his two children--but at present he needs the money that Saul Lynx is paying him to find Black Betty.
There are two or three stories going on in the novel, and it can become a little annoying, especially when you can't make the connection. But the writing is so good, and the characters that Mosley is constantly introducing are so interesting that you can't put the book down. Mosley describes people and things very well, and he has a tremendous ear for dialogue. His description of the homes of the haves and have nots of Los Angeles, and his description of that hot Santa Ana wind, and of the desert (of a single flower in the desert) is as good as you would find in Chandler at his best. And his dialogue is just as good, whether he is dealing with the hoods in the street, or the police, or children, or matrons in their grand Beverly Hills mansions.
In his search for Black Betty, Easy Rawlins comes up against more bad people than anyone should have to meet. Saul Lynx is a shadowy figure himself, but he is only a shadow compared to some of the others who are real, evil and brutal. The little men all have guns, and the big ones use their muscles. Mouse is small and he is just out of jail. He is looking for someone to kill, and Easy Rawlins is on his short list. Easy has to prove to Mouse that he was not responsible for sending him to jail. Mouse only half believes him, so Easy has to find the real culprit. Another bad guy is "Commander" Stiles of the Los Angeles police department, who likes getting information with his fist when you are not expecting it, and, even if you are, you are surprised at his sudden move. Then there is Calvin Hodge, the Texas lawyer who represents the people who are trying to find Black Betty. Hodge likes to call the 41-year-old black detective "boy," and he has the size and build to back up his words. There are others, just as cruel, and they leave enough dead bodies to prove it.
After all this, I was mildly disappointed when I first met Black Betty. Maybe I expected too much, too many drums and trumpets. She does not sing an aria, nor does she give us a soliquy. But what she does is wrap up things. There are a couple more little murders on the side after she comes on stage, but she gives us the answers to the main story, which is why she had to leave the mansion after a sudden death in the family.
But Mosley is not quite satisfied that Black Betty has given us all the answers. He feels that we need to know more about the remaining characters, and I think he did this hurriedly. He felt that he needed to tell us more about Mouse and some of the others when I don't think it was necessary.
This novel can be read as a simple detective story, and it can be seen as a comment on a people, place and time, as any good piece of fiction should be. Though the civil rights movement in the South is hardly ever mentioned--and certainly no character speaks to prophesy the Watts Riots--Easy Rawlins and other blacks in South Central suffer many of the same indignities that their/our brothers were suffering in the Southern part of the United States at that same time. Maybe this is what Mosley was doing, using the search for Black Betty as a means to let Easy Rawlins show us the L.A. of 1961--while predicting what could happen 30 years later. I wouldn't go so far as to say that that is the meaning of the book, but all the undercurrents are there. Blacks play subordinate roles in all cases, unless they are in their own neighborhood. There are lines that separate the poor from the well-off, and there are cops to enforce that rule. The explosion happened in '62, but the pot had been simmering 30 years earlier and more.
Easy Rawlins is 41 now after this fourth book, and he is tired. He wishes to spend more time with his two adopted children, and less time beating up, and being beatened up, by the bad people. But I along with thousands of others hope he doesn't give up the private eye business altogether. Marlowe was good, but he gave us information from one point of view, the white point of view. Easy Rawlins has access to places Marlowe would not dare tread. I like Marlowe and I like Spade--but we need Easy out there. Look after your children, Easy--but don't forget us.
They Leave You Alone in L.A.
Here, in an excerpt from Walter Mosley's "Black Betty," is the Los Angeles Easy Rawlins lives in:
You could tell by some people's houses that they came to L.A. to live out their dreams. Home is not a place to dream. At home you had to do like your father did and your mother. Home meant that everybody already knew what you could do and if you did the slightest little thing different they'd laugh you right down into a hole. You lived in that hole. Festered in t. After a while you either accepted your hole or you got out of it.
There were all kinds of ways out. You could get married, get drunk, get next to somebody's wife. You could take a shotgun and eat it for a midnight snack.
Or you could move to California.
In California they wouldn't laugh at you, or anybody. In California the sun shone three hundred and more days in the year. In California you could work until you dropped. And when you got up there was another job waiting for you.
In California you could paint the slats of your house like a rainbow and put a smiling face on your front door. You could have a caged rabbit and chickens right out in the yard and big granite animals for children to climb on. You could, like Georgette Harris, put a sign on your wire gate saying "Little Animals Nursery School and Day Care." Nobody cared. Nobody asked you, "What makes you a schoolteacher?" They'd just take you at your word. And if the law came down and asked for some papers you'd just move a mile or so further on, hang up the same sign, and collect children like a crow taking in glass.
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