Study Guide

Black Betty

by Walter Mosley

Black Betty Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Context

Mosley has often been compared to the hard-boiled crime writer Raymond Chandler; Mosley sets his novel just a few decades after Chandler’s private investigator Philip Marlowe walked what Chandler called Los Angeles’s “mean streets.” Like Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), Black Betty revolves around a wealthy but corrupt white family. The novel also resembles the 1974 film Chinatown in that a rich family’s sexual secrets hide at the heart of the story. The difference is that Easy’s world is mainly African American, and he spends as much time solving crimes in Watts and Compton as he does in Beverly Hills and Oxnard. In a sense, Mosley is closer to the African American writer Chester Himes, whose novels (such as If He Hollers Let Him Go, 1945, or Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1964) include some of the same urban racial tensions that Mosley portrays.

Critics have complained that Mosley has incorporated a genre—the Los Angeles detective story—that is inherently conservative. Mosley has actually used that genre for his own literary and political purposes, however, to point out the true racial feeling of the city, to underscore its violence, but to counter it with the strong sense of family and community to be found in this African American world. Like the plays of August Wilson, Walter Mosley’s novels give a fresh and challenging look at black America.