Walter Mosley | Critical Review by Dick Adler

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Walter Mosley.
This section contains 1,073 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Dick Adler

Critical Review by Dick Adler

SOURCE: "Life and Death in 1950s' Los Angeles," in Chicago Tribune—Books, June 28, 1992, pp. 1, 9.

Adler is an American author and critic. In the following review, Adler finds "some prime observations about racism, as true to today's times as they are to [Mosley's period" in White Butterfly.]

Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a Los Angeles apartment building owner who pretends he's the janitor and who solves crimes not for money but to save his own and his friends' skins, is trying to convince a grim secretary that he really does have an appointment to see the Oakland police chief.

"I had told her, in my best white man's English, 'I would like to be announced to the chief's office. I know that this is an unusual request, but a police officer from Los Angeles, a Sergeant Quinten Naylor, told me to meet him with the chief concerning a case in Los Angeles that seems to overlap with a case in your lovely city.'

"'You should go to your own precinct to give information you have there, sir,' she said, and then opened a drawer to look in, giving me a chance to withdraw."

But Easy Rawlins rarely withdraws, and finally, after much persistence and a lucky break, he gets the woman to call the chief's office, "Miss Cranshaw almost spit bile as she made the call for me. Her jaws clenched so tight I thought her teeth might crack. It might have been the first time she'd had to serve a Negro. I was working for progress."

The time—if the use of "Negro" hasn't already given it away—is the 1950s, 1956 to be exact, and Easy has been sucked into yet another tumble-down-a-dirty-staircase of murder and worse by that same mixture of threat and curiosity that gave Walter Mosley's first two thrillers such a distinctive glow. Like Devil in a Blue Dress and A Red Death, White Butterfly grabs you by the elbow from the getgo, letting you know that you're in for some rough but very interesting times. And not since Chester Himes began to shake up the literary world with his Harlent-based crime novels has a black writer used the mystery genre to expose the kind of racism that has always lurked behind the benign, smoggy grin of Los Angeles.

Easy's South Central Los Angeles of the late 1940s and 1950s is shown—minus the well-intentioned hand-wringing of the post-Watts riots years—as basically the same kind of armed and divided camp that it is today. Early on in White Butterfly, a posse of white officials gang up on Easy to enlist his help in the murder of a young UCLA coed (another pithy '50s echo) who moonlighted as a stripper in rough bars. One of the officials is a police captain named Violette, whom Easy suddenly remembers from a past encounter:

"He was only a detective when he dragged Alvin Lewis out of his house on Sutter Place. Alvin had beaten a woman in an alley outside of a local bar and Violette had taken the call. The woman, Lola Jones, refused to press charges, and Violette decided to take a little justice into his own hands. I remembered how red his face got while he beat Alvin with a police stick. I remembered how cowardly I felt while three other white policemen stood around with their hands on their pistols and grim satisfaction on their faces. It wasn't the satisfaction that a bad man had paid for his crime, those men were tickled to have power like that…."

The last thing Easy wants at this point in his life is to work for the police on a series of sordid killings that have captured the attention of the brass only because the latest victim is white and from a prominent family. Easy is married to a fine woman, Regina, a nurse who has a hard time accepting the fact that her janitor husband can quickly put his hands on large sums of money. (He hasn't yet told her of the real estate business he runs with a man called Mofass.) All he really wants to do is spend time with Regina, with their baby daughter Edna, and with his adopted son Jesus, a mute Mexican boy he rescued from abuse in a previous book.

But the cops get to Rawlins by threatening to arrest Raymond Alexander as a suspect in the murders. Raymond, known as "Mouse," is a boyhood friend of Easy's and is in fact a stone killer with a hair-trigger temper who will shoot a man on the slightest pretext. But Mouse doesn't murder women: He's too busy getting them into bed. So Easy is forced off on a journey through mayhem and memory as rich as the best of Chandler and Ross MacDonald, trying to keep Mouse out of jail and the hard-breathing white cops off his own back.

Along the way, Mosley also manages to distill some prime observations about racism, as true to today's times as they are to his period. At the corner of 93rd and Hooper stands one of Easy's private temples, a small public library run by an almost saintly woman from Wisconsin named Mrs. Stella Keaton:

"We were on a first-name basis, Stella and I, but I was unhappy that she held that job. I was unhappy because even though Stella was nice, she was still a white woman. A white woman from a place where there were only white Christians. To her, Shakespeare was a god. I didn't mind that, but what did she know about the folk tales and riddles and stories colored folks have been telling for centuries? What did she know about the language we spoke? I always heard her correcting children's speech. 'Not "I is," 'she'd say. 'It's "I am."' And, of course, she was right. It's just that little colored children listening to that proper white woman would never hear their own cadence in her words. They'd come to believe that they would have to abandon their own language and stories to become a part of her educated world…."

At the end of White Butterfly Easy Rawlins finds the real killer and gets Mouse off the hook, but he has to pay a sad and terrible price for his victory. In a way, it's the same price that Chester Himes and Walter Mosley and millions of other Americans of all colors have had to pay to get us to the dubious place we are today.

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This section contains 1,073 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Dick Adler
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