Keepin’ it real

Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, the hardboiled but compassionate protagonist in Walter Mosley’s ultrafluid mystery series, sees things other people overlook. This intangible talent has gotten the now-45-year-old African-American into deep trouble; shaped and reshaped his attitude and character; saved his life; and given him covert work in that wide, volatile divide between the police and black Los Angeles.

Mosley’s latest Easy Rawlins installment, Little Scarlet: An Easy Rawlins Mystery, is set in the aftermath of the incendiary five-day August 1965 L.A. riots. The morning air still smells of smoke as Easy ventures past the Research and Delivery sign on his office door (he is not licensed to work as a private investigator) and into a city smoldering with anger, fear, frustration and anguish. Easy is acting as a peacemaker between the owner of a gutted, charred shoe-repair store and an upset customer when the police arrive and ask for his assistance.

The media has established the death count at 33, but there is one unreported fatality that law enforcement wants Easy to explore outside public scrutiny. The corpse of Nola Payne lies naked on a silver table in the Miller Neurological Sanatorium. The 30-something black woman was strangled in her Watts apartment and shot through an eye. Her aunt, Geneva Landry, found the body, and when the police arrived, she was hysterically screaming that a white man had killed her niece. Landry now lies heavily sedated in a straitjacket and bed in a nearby room.

The deputy commissioner has a mission for Easy: Quickly find out what happened in the apartment, so the presence of police, rumors and news reports don’t another ignite another inferno. Easy’s only immediate clue is that a white man was dragged from his car and beaten near the homicide scene and since has disappeared. Easy then methodically peels back the circumstantial evidence and facts of the case, exposing not only surprising leads but also the racial war being fought under the skin of America and a new city emerging from its own ashes.

Mosley once again transcends the mystery genre by weaving sinuous threads of social and political commentary into his story that illuminate how blacks and whites see and react to each other and themselves. He transports readers to time and place with the same meticulous, compelling detail with which he paints his characters. And he is a master storyteller who concurrently moves both plot and character along at a finely lubricated, exhilarating and readily digestible pace. In Little Scarlet, his prose unfurls in a fascinating and cinematic meld of street and elegance that left me eager for his next novel.

Easy is a fully fleshed character who likes to keep people talking so as not to have to tell so many lies of his own. He realizes that the scales of justice often are tipped by politics and corruption, and he relies heavily on his own intuition and experience to survive as friend, lover, father, gumshoe and reluctant crusader. “I had always been amazed by the ignorance that white people showed about black most of the times,” says Easy at one point. “I was angry at their lack of awareness—this time I was enthralled.” And it’s Easy’s infectious embrace of his own flawed humanity as well as that of the world that makes this chapter in his ever-changing life so absorbing.

I was first introduced to the Easy Rawlins series through the film version of Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel Washington. I eventually picked up a copy of A Little Yellow Dog during a cross-country business trip and was amazed that several people noticed the book under my arm and stopped to chat. “Put that book down and start from the beginning of the series” was the common advice I received. I did. And not for one page have I regretted it.