Black detective on the case in L.A.

June 19, 1994|By Ernest J. Gaines | Ernest J. Gaines,Los Angeles Times

In 1961, John F. Kennedy was president of the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. was leading civil rights demonstrators in Alabama and Georgia, and Easy Rawlins was searching for Black Betty out of South Central Los Angeles.

"Black Betty" is Walter Mosley's latest novel, and Easy Rawlins is his private eye, just as Philip Marlowe was alter ego for Raymond Chandler in that same city, and Sam Spade served that purpose for Dashiell Hammett 400 and some miles farther north in San Francisco. I mention Chandler and Hammett and their private detectives, Marlowe and Spade, because I think Mosley and Rawlins fit that mold. The writer and his private eye are tough, shrewd and knowledgeable about their cities, and they know the things, the good and the bad, that make those cities move.

Easy Rawlins is raising two adopted children -- Jesus, a little Mexican boy he rescued from a brothel, and Feather, a little girl of mixed black and white parentage, and Easy is doing all he can as a single parent to bring them up well.

When he is in the streets searching for Black Betty, an assignment offered him by Saul Lynx, a white private detective of suspicious honesty (who thinks Rawlins can get more information than he in black South Central L.A.), then Easy Rawlins can be as tough with the bad guys as he is tender with his children, who are always on his mind.

There are two or three stories going on in the novel, and it can become a little annoying, especially when you can't make the connection. But the writing is so good, and the characters that Mosley is constantly introducing are so interesting, you can't put the book down.

Mosley describes people and things very well, and he has a tremendous ear for dialogue. His description of the homes of the haves and have-nots of Los Angeles, and his description of that hot Santa Ana wind, and of the desert (of a single flower in the desert) are as good as you would find in Chandler at his best. His dialogue is just as good, whether he is dealing with the hoods in the street, or the police, or children or matrons in their grand Beverly Hills mansions.

In his search for Black Betty, who had worked for a rich white family, Easy Rawlins comes up against more bad people than anyone should have to meet. Saul Lynx is a shadowy figure himself, but he is only a shadow compared with some of the others who are real, evil and brutal.

Mouse is small, and he is just out of jail. He is looking for someone to kill, and Easy Rawlins is on his short list. Easy has to prove to Mouse that he was not responsible for sending him to jail. Mouse only half-believes him, so Easy has to find the real culprit. Another bad guy is "Commander" Stiles of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Then there is Calvin Hodge, the Texas lawyer who represents the people who are trying to find Black Betty. Hodge likes to call the 41-year-old black detective "boy." There are others, just as cruel, and they leave enough dead bodies to prove it.

After all this, I was mildly disappointed when I first met Black Betty. Maybe I expected too much, too many drums and trumpets. She does not sing an aria, nor does she give us a soliloquy. But what she does is wrap up things. There are a couple of other little murders on the side after she comes on stage, but she gives us the answers to the main story, which is why she had to leave the mansion after a sudden death in the family.

But Mr. Mosley is not quite satisfied that Black Betty has given us all the answers. He feels that we need to know more about the remaining characters, and I think he did this hurriedly. He felt that he needed to tell us more about Mouse and some of the others, when I don't think it was necessary.

This novel can be read as a simple detective story, and it can be seen as a comment on a people, place and time, as any good piece of fiction should be. Though the civil rights movement in the South is hardly ever mentioned -- and certainly no character speaks to prophesy the Watts riots of 1965 -- Easy Rawlins and other blacks in South Central suffer many of the same indignities that their/our brothers were suffering in the Southern part of the United States at that same time.

Maybe this is what Mr. Mosley was doing, using the search for Black Betty as a means to let Easy Rawlins show us the L.A. of 1961 -- while predicting what could happen 30 years later. I wouldn't go so far as to say that that is the meaning of the book, but all the undercurrents are there. Blacks play subordinate roles in all cases, unless they are in their own neighborhood.

Easy Rawlins is 41 now after this fourth book, and he is tired. He wishes to spend more time with his children, and less time beating up, and being beaten up by, the bad people. But I, along with thousands of others, hope he doesn't give up the private eye business altogether. Marlowe was good, but he gave us information from one point of view, the white point of view. Easy Rawlins has access to places Marlowe would not dare tread. I like Marlowe and I like Spade -- but we need Easy out there. Look after your children, Easy -- but don't forget us.

Title: "Black Betty"

Author: Walter Mosley

Publisher: Norton

Length, price: 255 pages, $19.95

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