Walter Mosley | Critical Review by Paul Levine

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Walter Mosley.
This section contains 808 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Paul Levine

SOURCE: "Easy on the Case," in Chicago Tribune—Books, June 26, 1994, p. 3.

Levine is an American journalist and author of the "Jake Lassiter" series of novels. In the following review of Black Betty, he compares Mosley's Easy Rawlins to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and praises Mosley's powers of description, asserting that he "captures a time and place with dead-on perfect detail and evocative language."

Ezekiel "Essay" Rawlins, the reluctant P.I., is older and wiser in Walter Mosley's latest period mystery, but that doesn't stop him from taking on the case of the sensual and dangerous Elizabeth Eady, a. k. a. Black Betty.

Easy was a raggedy 12-year-old when he first encountered Black Betty, "a great shark of a woman. Men died in her wake." Both traveled far from Houston's Fifth Ward, where Easy had "just enough clothes to keep me decent and ten cents less than I needed to survive."

Now the year is 1961. A young president is in the White House, and the nation is migrating west. But life isn't necessarily better for Easy, who has lost his wife and daughter but like another fictional sleuth, James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux, has adopted two street children to save them and presumably himself.

Betty has become the favored housekeeper of a Beverly Hills millionaire, and Easy has climbed into Los Angeles' black middle class by accumulating real estate. Then Betty disappears from the mansion, and in the best tradition of the genre mystery, someone wants to find her, and someone else wants to kill her.

With his properties threatened by scoundrels of more than one race, Easy needs money, so he takes $2,000 to track down the missing woman. Along the way, he must discover what makes the still-alluring Betty so important to so many lethal characters. As usual in this genre, the answers lie in money and corruption. It is a tale of mendacity and violence told with style and flair from the perspective of the black experience—or rather Mosley's unique version of it.

Black Betty is the fourth Easy Rawlins novel, and it's a sizzling addition to the color-coded series that began with Devil in a Blue Dress and includes A Red Death and White Butterfly. If the titles are reminiscent of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series, the writing is vintage Raymond Chandler.

—A stucco building "had walls you could scrape through with a tin spoon."

—A burly cop's hand on Easy's shoulder "felt like a bag of wet cement."

—A P.I. without money in the bank is "one of those men who always drive their car a hair above empty and two quarts low."

—"John's nod was a small thing. Like a bullet in the brain."

Rawlins shares with Chandler's Philip Marlowe a distrust of authority, usually personified by the police. "The law is just the other side of the coin from crime … they're both the same and interchangeable. Criminals were just a bunch of thugs living off what honest people and rich people made. The cops were thugs too; paid by the owners of property to keep the other thugs down."

Still, Easy Rawlins does not clearly fit into the description of the detective hero immortalized in Chandler's essay, "The Simple Art of Murder": "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."

More real than Marlowe, Easy Rawlins knows fear when a homicidal cop beats him. Neither tarnished nor mean? Easy has killed before, and after enduring one racial insult too many, he can inflict pain in plentiful doses. In short, he is hardly a "saint with a gun," to borrow D.H. Lawrence's sardonic phrase. Still, both Marlowe and Rawlins are from the wrong side of the tracks and are equally out of place when ushered into a Beverly Hills mansion by a thin-lipped butler.

Mosley's South Central Los Angeles is even more violent than the underbelly of the city created by Chandler. Easy's murderous friend Mouse, "the darkness on the other side of the moon," once killed a cop by biting through his jugular and might kill Easy for tipping off an enemy to get out of town.

As with Chandler, it is the prose, not the plot, that draws the reader to this character-driven series. (Do you really care who shot Rusty Regan in The Big Sleep?) The story's destination—who wants to kill Betty and why—is not nearly as interesting as getting there.

Mosley captures a time and place with dead-on perfect detail and evocative language. To Easy Rawlins, the American dream was simply a chance to escape the "hole" of the Houston slums:

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.

This is one reader who wants to go along for the ride.

(read more)

This section contains 808 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Paul Levine
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