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The haunts of a sleuth called Easy

Special to The Times

IT’S Los Angeles shortly after the Watts Riots. Walter Mosley’s South-Central sleuth Easy Rawlins is doing an abnormal amount of dreaming, mainly about death. In his first nightmare, Easy clutches his adopted daughter, Feather, so tightly he kills her. On another night, he’s caught up in a horrific battle to the finish with a young Nazi soldier.

“It was a dream,” Easy says in “Cinnamon Kiss,” Mosley’s 10th Easy Rawlins book, “but everything had happened more than twenty years before.”

On a jail cell cot, Easy imagines being prepped for execution in the electric chair. A chapter or so later, in his own bed, he dreams of chatting with a corpse he stumbled upon earlier in the novel while Dizzy Gillespie blows his trumpet in the kitchen, “his cheeks puffed out like a bullfrog’s.” In yet another reverie, he rests dead in his coffin but can see Feather and his adopted son, Jesus, living comfortably. Even while awake, his thoughts drift inward to the point where driving becomes more hazardous than gunplay.

What’s the dealio with all the dreamscapes? Well, they’re natural reactions to the kinds of pressure Mosley puts his hero under. There is a dreamlike quality about the whole novel, its realistic base -- the portrayal of a black man’s struggles in a hard city where the social structure is stacked against him -- interrupted by elements that are exotic, melodramatic or hyper-sexual. Side trips to San Francisco where flower power is in full bloom add to the surrealism.

At the end of Easy’s last outing, in the novel “Little Scarlet,” he was given props and an official private investigator’s license by an LAPD deputy commissioner. Readers concerned that this may have signaled a softening of the character may rest assured. As one woman tells him in “Cinnamon Kiss,” “You the most dangerous man in any room you in....”

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This time, Easy’s overriding problem involves Feather. The little girl has contracted a blood disease so rare only a clinic in Montreux, Switzerland, can save her life -- at a cost of more than $35,000. To obtain the money, Easy can either participate in an armed robbery engineered by his closest friend, the oddly likable sociopath Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, or work for an oddball international super-sleuth whom he suspects is a liar and a racist. He opts for the oddball, hoping he’s taking the less criminal course, but knowing in his heart, as does the reader, that it will wind up being uglier and messier than Mouse’s nice clean heist.

Mosley employs a number of plot devices that have been in constant service by fictional private eyes since the heydays of Hammett and Chandler, refreshed and revitalized by a worldview those two innovators would have been hard-pressed to match (though Hammett gave it a shot with the short story “Night Shade”). One is the given that an employer isn’t trustworthy. With the moniker Robert E. Lee, the world-famous investigator is, of course, a rabid Civil War buff whose heart belongs in Dixie. The dapper, diminutive eccentric resides in seclusion on the top floor of a bone-white building at the peak of San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Lee’s secretary-assistant is a strikingly efficient, stunningly beautiful “white woman with tanned skin and copper hair” wearing a sleeveless “Chinese-style dress made of royal blue silk.” In short, the kind of dame who’d have given Philip Marlowe the same sultry look she bestows on Easy.

Lee explains the situation: A briefcase has been stolen from an unnamed client. The key to its whereabouts is a young black woman, Cinnamon Cargill, who has gone underground in Watts. Finding women in Watts is nothing new for Easy. He’s been on at least two similar hunts -- in his debut case, “Devil in a Blue Dress,” and his fourth and most Chandler-like investigation, “Black Betty.” Unlike those early forays, the search for Cinnamon is a little shy on L.A.-centric descriptions, though the ones that do pop up are primo, such as this post-riot observation: “The day was beautiful if you didn’t look right at the burned out businesses and boarded-up shops. The few people walking down the avenue were somber and sour looking. They were mostly poor, either unemployed or married to someone who was, and realizing that California and Mississippi were sister states in the same Union, members of the same clan.”

Mosley adds to these elements a corpse hidden in a huge brass elephant, a secret document proving traitorous World War II activity and a gallery of vividly drawn characters, including a ruthless hit man named Cicero; an assortment of intriguing women, Cinnamon included, who fall immediately under Easy’s spell; several hippies, some sweetly innocent, others stoned but harmless; the prescient techno whiz Jackson Blue; and -- continuing the author’s fondness for color-inspired names -- Christmas Black, a tough but honorable giant with a tiny adopted Asian daughter. Filtered through Mosley’s fluid style, his eye for subtle detail and ear for pitch-perfect dialogue, they make for another compelling, fast-paced and frequently profound thriller.

*

Dick Lochte, author of the suspense thriller “Sleeping Dog,” is a frequent contributor to Book Review.


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