The players in this murder story are three-dimensional and painfully realistic. Easy Rawlins is a complex man, equally capable of love and rage, bothered by violent dreams (although he never kills anyone himself in this novel). He tries to live by his own code of ethics, to share with those less fortunate than himself, and to find justice in an unjust world. The novel is set during the early 1960’s, at a time when racial tensions in Los Angeles are high. African Americans hardly trust whites, and with good reason, for most of the acts of violence in the novel are committed by the dominant group against the subordinate one. The other African American characters are also complex. Easy’s friend Mouse is a violent killer bent on revenge, and only Easy saves him from himself. Odell Jones helps Easy grudgingly, because there is past bad blood between them; his third old friend Martin Smith is slowly dying of cancer.
Betty is a victim as well, raped by Cain, her weak half-brother Marlon sucked into the Cains’ criminal world. The white characters are consistently evil and arrogant, and Easy’s lack of trust in them is well founded. The prime exception is Saul Lynx, a white man who is saved in the end by Easy and who becomes his friend. The Cains are more typical of Mosley’s representation of white characters: A white family haunted by their violent past, they would probably get away with murder were it not for Easy. Mosley’s characters may be black or white, but their characterizations are usually shades of gray. Easy Rawlins’s first-person narration conveys their complexity at the same time that it reveals his own pained and troubled mind.