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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349

In the novel Black Betty, which is the fourth in a series of books featuring the character of Easy Rawlins, we find our hero in the year 1961, struggling to support his two adopted children. To make ends meet, Rawlins agrees to help track down a woman he had known when he was a child back in Houston: Black Betty. Rawlins had a huge crush on Betty, who was a prostitute at the time. We find out that Betty, who now lives in Los Angeles and and works as a maid, has disappeared and that her employer wants Easy to find her. Mosley is adept at writing about the disparity between the rich and the poor in the United States in the 1960s, especially in Los Angeles. Easy finds it hard to believe that the elegant Black Betty of his youth now works as a domestic in Beverly Hills. By contrast, Mosley writes about the conditions in the poorer areas of town:

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You could tell by some people's houses that they came to L.A. to live out their dreams. Home is not a place to dream. . . . Home meant that everybody already knew what you could do and if you did the slightest little thing different they'd laugh you right down into a hole. You lived in that hole.

The novel discusses race and what it means to be African American in 1960s America. Easy, being a private detective, has access to the "white" world, a fact that makes him slightly wary. All in all, we see a different Easy Rawlins, one who has changed significantly from the first book. Family has become more important to him than ever, and his yearning to be with his daughter Edna (who lives with her mother in Mississippi) is almost unbearable. Perhaps as a result of being unable to be with his daughter, Easy seeks to lavish his attention on his two adopted children. To summarize, the novel is about the continuing injustice of race relations in the United States, the unbreakable emotional ties of family, and growing older and perhaps more cautious.

Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2070

Since the 1990 publication of his first Easy Rawlins mystery, Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley has become one of the most acclaimed writers of modern detective fiction. Although he now lives in New York City, Mosley, the son of an African American father and a white Jewish mother, spent his early years in Los Angeles, and it is there that he has set his ambitious series of novels. Drawing on an aspect of the city’s complex history that has been largely ignored—the changing character of the black community in the years since World War II—Mosley has found a setting and a context for his books that is both utterly original and steeped in the traditions of classic crime fiction.

Mosley’s black detective operates within a world that is far removed from the familiar “mean streets” traveled by Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe, although the communities themselves are separated by only a few miles. The series begins in 1948 with Rawlins, newly unemployed, falling almost casually into detective work when he is asked to use his connections within the black community to find a missing white girl who sometimes spent time in Watts. Although he never officially or legally becomes a private investigator, his reputation as a reliable man with a talent for detective work soon leads him to other cases. The second book, A Red Death (1991), finds Rawlins blackmailed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation into investigating a Jewish union organizer and suspected Communist who is working with a local black church. In White Butterfly (1992), Rawlins aids the police with a complicated case that begins with the serial murders of three black women and ends with a white man murdering his daughter for giving birth to a black child.

Black Betty is the fourth book in the series, and it brings Easy Rawlins up to the early 1960’s. Since the series began, he has married, fathered a child, lost his wife and daughter to a friend, and unofficially adopted two more children, Jesus and Feather, both of whom he rescued from desperate circumstances during the course of his investigations. As the book opens, Rawlins and his two children are living in an integrated neighborhood in West Los Angeles, having moved out of the South Central area at the close of White Butterfly.

Rawlins’ new case is set in motion by a visit from a white private eye named Saul Lynx. Lynx has been hired by attorney Calvin Hodge to find Elizabeth Eady, a wealthy white family’s maid who is better known as Black Betty. Rawlins had known Betty in Houston twenty-five years earlier, when she was a local beauty with a string of lovers and he was a lovestruck teenager. She had come to Los Angeles with her brother Marlon and found work in Beverly Hills as a maid.

Rawlins begins his search for Betty by tracing Marlon to the desert town of Mecca, where, after a violent encounter with a bigoted store clerk, he finds evidence that Marlon may be dead and an uncashed check that leads him to the Cain mansion in Beverly Hills. There he meets Hodge and Sarah Cain, Betty’s employer, as well as Betty’s son Arthur and the family’s second maid, Gwendolyn, with whom he will later begin a tentative romance. As he is leaving the house, he is arrested, and later he is beaten during a police interrogation by a policeman named Commander Styles. Betty’s trail also leads Rawlins to the home of a young boxer named Terry Tyler; he finds Tyler dead and is stabbed in the back with an ice pick by someone hiding in the house. He later learns that it is Betty who has stabbed him, believing him to be Terry’s killer, and that Marlon has been beaten to death by two white men searching for Betty.

Rawlins at last finds Betty hiding at a friend’s house and learns that both Terry and Gwendolyn are actually her children, fathered by Sarah Cain’s abusive father, who was suffocated just prior to Betty’s disappearance. A brutal and tyrannical man, Albert Cain had altered his will to leave everything to Betty or her next-of-kin, and someone has been tracking the Eadys down and murdering them. Rawlins suspects Sarah Cain or her son and does indeed learn that Arthur is implicated in his grandfather’s death, along with Marlon Eady and Terry. While Rawlins and Lynx are questioning the Cains, Gwendolyn is called away and is later found dead in the garden. Arthur flees the house, and Rawlins and Lynx track him to the home of Odell and Maude Jones, longtime friends of both Rawlins and Betty. There Rawlins finds Arthur’s father, Ron Hawkes—the store clerk from Mecca.

Hawkes is still legally married to Sarah Cain and had persuaded Arthur, Marlon, and Terry to murder Albert Cain in the hope of gaining access to his wife’s inheritance. After learning the contents of Cain’s will, Hawkes murdered both men with the assistance of his friend Commander Styles, and he is also responsible for Gwendolyn’s death. Hawkes shoots Saul and escapes, but is later shot by Styles to prevent his own part in the murders from being revealed. At the hospital where Saul is recovering from his wounds, Rawlins meets Mrs. Lynx and discovers to his surprise that she is black.

As in his previous three books, Mosley uses the framework of his plot to explore the realities of black life. In even his most casual contacts with white society, Easy Rawlins is a frequent target for condescension, hatred, and violence. White men refer to him as “boy” although Rawlins is forty-one, and his presence in a white neighborhood is enough to arouse suspicion and hostility. When he is arrested without cause by the Beverly Hills police and subjected to a beating by Styles, Rawlins knows that he has no recourse beyond attempting to placate the corrupt officer and hoping that he can survive the encounter. The treatment he receives is no more than he has come to expect after a lifetime of brutality and disrespect at the hands of white society.

Yet Black Betty also offers a portrait of a society on the brink of change. Rawlins now lives in a neighborhood that would have been closed to him in 1948, the year in which Devil in a Blue Dress is set, and the civil rights work of Martin Luther King, Jr., is much in his mind. As he comments near the beginning of the book, “The world was changing and a black man in America had the chance to be a man for the first time in hundreds of years.” Rawlins views these changes with both hope and caution, well aware that a black man who reaches for too much can still be beaten down without mercy.

This beating need not always take a physical form; financial discrimination is also a potent weapon. One of the book’s many subplots involves Rawlins’ clashes with a woman named Clovis who has seized control of an investment company from her lover, Rawlins’ friend Mofass. The company had been planning—at Rawlins’ suggestion—to build a black-owned shopping center in South Central Los Angeles, using primarily Rawlins’ property and money. Clovis, however, has sold her investors out to a group of white politicians and businessmen, who have denied the building permits and plan to seize the property from its owners for a city sewage treatment plant, then declare the land unsuitable for a plant and resell it to a white store chain. With the help of Mofass, Rawlins recoups some of his losses, but the land is requisitioned by the city and he sees his investment and his plan for a shopping center taken over by white businessmen. In the book’s conclusion, however, he reveals that he later signed on to the construction crew and sabotaged the building’s foundations, engineering its eventual collapse. Unable to find justice within the law, he has no qualms about taking his revenge outside its boundaries.

One of the most striking points to emerge in each of Mosley’s books is the degree of separation that exists between the black community and the rest of society. In Rawlins’ old South Central neighborhood, white faces are an infrequent sight, and the community exists largely outside the awareness—and sometimes the reach—of the white world that surrounds it. Rawlins’ children, Feather and Jesus, are not legally his, but he has taken them in knowing that society cares little for their fate and will not look too closely at the details of a black man’s life. Jesus, a Hispanic boy whom he saved from a life of child prostitution, has been so severely traumatized by his past that he has never spoken, although he is now in high school. During the course of the book, however, Rawlins discovers that Jesus does speak to Feather, his adored younger sister, and when Rawlins is stabbed, the event becomes the catalyst for the boy’s first words to his father. Rawlins’ love for his children is one of the book’s most engaging features, adding a dimension to his life that helps the character emerge as a fully developed figure living a life filled with ties and obligations.

Mosley’s portrayal of the world in which Rawlins moves is also one ofBlack Betty’s strongest features. As his detective tracks the missing woman, Mosley offers the reader vivid miniportraits of a wide variety of individuals: a woman financing her front-yard day-care center by taking gambling bets; an older man dying slowly of cancer; a cowardly bookie and the vicious man who protects him; Odell and Maude Jones, an elderly churchgoing couple who befriended Rawlins in his youth and now hold him responsible for their pastor’s death; and Rawlins’ old friend Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, recently out of prison and determined to kill whoever turned him in to the police on a murder charge.

One of the book’s most illuminating portraits is that of Black Betty herself. Described by Rawlins from his youthful memories as “a great shark of a woman. Men died in her wake,” she is seen in her Houston days as a great beauty, a woman with an almost irresistible allure for men. Strong, confident, and unafraid to follow her passions, she leaves an impression on the teenage Rawlins that will last for more than two decades. Upon her arrival in Los Angeles, however, her status as a black woman limits her to domestic work, while her beauty earns for her the unwanted attentions of the master of the house. Betty at first resists Albert Cain’s advances, until he sets her brother up in a criminal scheme and uses the evidence to blackmail her into submission. Unable to claim the children she bears as her own, Betty is forced to submit to her employer until his death, when she flees in an attempt to draw blame for his murder to herself. When Rawlins encounters her again after twenty-five years, she is a bitter, grief-stricken, and ultimately defeated woman who has been robbed of everyone she loves by the greed of Cain’s family and associates. Her story is unique, but it contains echoes of the lives of many black men and women of her generation who were gradually broken down by a life with too many hardships and no recourse against the injustices of a society that regarded them as second-class citizens.

Walter Mosley’s popularity was given a high-profile boost when Bill Clinton listed him as one of his favorite writers after discovering Mosley’s work in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. That the President of the United States should turn to a mystery writer for insights into the city’s racial problems is a measure of how skillfully Mosley has used the genre to explore critical social issues and focus attention on a long-neglected aspect of social history.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, May 1, 1994, p. 1563.

Chicago Tribune. June 26, 1994, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. July 1, 1994, p. 10.

Fortune. CXXX, August 8, 1994, p. 107.

Library Journal. CXIX, May 1, 1994, p. 141.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 5, 1994, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, June 5, 1994, p. 13.

Newsweek. CXXIV, July 4, 1994, p. 66.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, April 25, 1994, p. 60.

The Washington Post. June 20, 1994, p. C2.

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