Books July 2002

A Grand Contrivance

Together, the Easy Rawlins mysteries constitute a sprawling novel of manners about black Los Angeles in the mid twentieth century
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I don't put much stock in classifying novels by genre. The simple truth is that good writing is good writing, regardless of its form. I'm not saying that all fiction is equal, or that engaged reading doesn't require an active, critical intelligence. But books like Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and James M. Cain's Double Indemnity are not merely great crime novels; they are works of literature, with all the intricacy and insight that implies.

The tricky question of genre has marked the career of Walter Mosley since the publication of his first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, in 1990. Mosley, after all, is commonly known as a mystery writer whose reluctant sleuth, Easy Rawlins, inhabits the same desolate, sun-bleached southern California as Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, sharing much of the isolation and moral ambiguity of their hard-boiled universe. At the same time, Mosley has never been a traditional crime novelist; rather, he writes to serve a cultural agenda, and for him the mystery is less a whodunit than a vehicle for exploring a way of life. On the most basic level this exploration is racial: Easy is a black man in a white man's world, and his every action requires a delicate dance with convention, with the rigid social order of L.A. in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s—a landscape characterized by racist cops and housing covenants and the small, daily degradations of living on the color line. Still more significant, though, is the way that, read together, the Rawlins books—Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death, White Butterfly, Black Betty, A Little Yellow Dog—compose a sprawling novel of manners about twentieth-century African-American Los Angeles that owes as much to authors like Dickens and Zola as it does to the aesthetics of noir. Here Mosley portrays a community largely overlooked in the city's literature, a shadow territory with its own code of ethics. This expansive vision has everything to do with Easy: an enigmatic figure, he is less a detective than a favor broker, a private citizen who gets involved in cases out of personal connection, and knows hundreds of people at all levels of income, education, and class. Easy spends time in bars, and with criminals and con men, but he also understands the quieter pleasures of domestic life. Characters and situations carry over from volume to volume, imbuing the whole sequence with an uncommon three-dimensionality, a vivid air of consequence.

For all the artfulness of the Rawlins saga, Mosley has always seemed a bit ambivalent about the enterprise, as if wary of being pigeonholed. As early as 1995 he branched out from the series with a blues novel, RL's Dream, which addressed the Robert Johnson myth, with mixed results. The following year, after the publication of A Little Yellow Dog, he began an extended sabbatical from crime writing, and then returned in 2001 with the stand-alone mystery Fearless Jones. In the interim Mosley bounced all over the literary map, writing two volumes of science fiction, two collections of stories about an ex-con named Socrates Fortlow, and a nonfiction book; he also issued his previously unreleased first novel, Gone Fishin' (in which Easy Rawlins first appears, as a teenager), through the small Baltimore-based Black Classic Press. His choice to focus on these books, which share with the Rawlins novels a sense of social vision, leaves the distinct impression of an author in search of something he's not sure that mysteries can offer: a context in which to be considered on his own terms. "We need to stop other people from ghettoizing our work," Mosley said in 1997, "and we need to stop ourselves. Mystery writers think of their readers as fans, but if a man reads your book, he's a reader. By the same token, I'm not a mystery writer. I'm a writer." That's a telling comment, not least because it reveals how deeply the idea of genre continues to define the way we think about literary work. It's ironic that Mosley should even have to make this statement, because if his varied career proves anything, it's just how spurious such distinctions are.

All these issues—social commentary, authorial identity, the relationship between genre fiction and literature—come together in Bad Boy Brawly Brown, the sixth Easy Rawlins mystery. It's an excellent book, perhaps the best in the series (although I remain partial to A Red Death, with its bleak, corrosive portrait of Los Angeles in the McCarthy era), and it reads as if Mosley had never stepped away at all. This is owing primarily to the novel's set-up: taking place in early 1964, only three months after the conclusion of A Little Yellow Dog, it plunges us back into Easy's life with barely a caesura, picking up a host of conflicts that the previous installment left unresolved. Mostly those conflicts derive from Easy's personal life, beginning with the death of his best friend and protector, Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, for which Easy feels a great responsibility. There are also his two adopted children, Jesus and Feather, and the woman, Bonnie Shay, with whom the three of them live—a makeshift family that has developed throughout the Rawlins novels, providing both a grounding and a counterpoint to the world outside. That's a key motif in these pages, one to which Mosley returns repeatedly, and it's important because despite the novels' continuity, the L.A. Easy must now navigate has inexorably changed. A Little Yellow Dog closes with the Kennedy assassination, America's iconic loss of innocence; Bad Boy Brawly Brown opens in a brand-new era, with black activists preaching self-determination while the white elite uses every tool at its disposal to subvert them, including secret police-intelligence squads. "There's blood boiling under the surface of Watts," a police detective tells Easy early in the novel, in a whisper of the fires to come.

The fact that, unlike Mosley's characters, we confront these matters with historical hindsight is one of the subtle pleasures of the Rawlins books. This also gives the work its weight. History, after all, offers a way for Mosley to transcend the boundaries of plot and genre and tell his stories on a broader scale. Thus, although Easy's search for a young man who has run away to join the militant Urban Revolutionary Party may keep us turning pages, more momentous is what Easy's investigation reveals about the black community's struggle for autonomy and dignity—a struggle mirrored in the detective's life as well. Easy, too, is something of a runaway; he leaves Watts to buy a house in mostly white, mostly middle-class West Los Angeles and gives up the "economy of trading favors" for a job as head custodian at Sojourner Truth Junior High School. To his chagrin, however, he can never separate himself completely. Something always draws him back. Ever since Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy has been the quintessential man in the middle, part of his neighborhood but able to step outside it, a secret businessman (he quietly owns two small apartment buildings) who can't escape the street. In Bad Boy Brawly Brown such tensions are only heightened by the sense that for both Easy and the larger culture, things have reached a turning point. Mosley makes this explicit early in the novel, when, in the midst of a stakeout, Easy studies for a building supervisor's exam. He reflects,

Studying made me feel like I still had a foot in the workaday world that Feather needed me to be a part of. She needed every day to be the same as the day before and something to say when her friends and teachers asked what her daddy did for a living. I became that man for a couple of hours while waiting for night to come on.

This moment reverberates because of the depth of Easy's personality, his complexity, his obliqueness, our inability to pin him down. He is pulled by conflicting desires, conflicting obligations; like most of us, he understands that what he ought to do and what he wants to do are not always the same. At forty-four, with a family and a mortgage, he knows he's too old to be chasing hoodlums, but he can't deny the attraction—the way that in the throes of an investigation all his burdens fade away. This need for escape is only magnified by his guilt over Mouse, an emotion Mosley weaves through the story in the form of regrets, memories, longings, the seething turmoil of surviving a friend. Among the most unexpected aspects of the novel, in fact, is that even in death Mouse's presence lingers, like a sin Easy cannot expiate. "You let me die," Mouse reminds him in a dream—a scene that exposes Easy's demons without letting him off the hook.

Oddly, the complexity that marks Easy is often missing from Mosley's non-mystery fiction; Socrates Fortlow and Soupspoon Wise (the protagonist of RL's Dream), for instance, are far less nuanced, their likes and dislikes and motivations far easier to read. In the end, though, that just reaffirms the irrelevance of genre as a way of categorizing literary work. Easy is flawed: he makes mistakes and operates against his own self-interest much of the time. "It felt good to be lying again," he tells us. "It was as if I disappeared behind a cloud of black ink like the squid or cuttlefish." But he also recognizes his limitations—and has no illusions about who he is. When a woman asks if she can trust him, he responds, "You can't ... How could you? You don't know me. You don't know who I know." It's a consummate Easy moment, ambiguous yet honest, in which the detective comes off not as a hero but, instead, as a human being.

Crime fiction ultimately represents nothing if not a grand contrivance—an approximation, rather than a reflection, of life. In the world outside mysteries, private citizens don't go chasing after killers and missing persons; they run and hide, or call the police, or fail to get involved at all. For Mosley, however, the highly stylized nature of the genre's conventions is less important than their ability to open a window on an elaborately imagined world. This is the intention of all literature, regardless of format, and with the Easy Rawlins novels Mosley has found a framework to make lasting points about the things that affect us most—the dynamics of character and interaction, and the difficulty of making one's way in the world.

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