(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2070 words.)