Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 242

Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is an African American private investigator in Los Angeles. This character, created by Walter Mosley, is the protagonist of several noir novels that span the period from immediately post–World War II to the early Cold War. Black Betty, which takes place in 1961, shares with Mosley's other books a predominant thematic concern with the daily lives of African American men and women, especially the dangers they face, in LA’s predominantly black areas. Racial conflicts are another constant theme; in this novel, they extend beyond black and white, to the city’s Asian American communities. The theme of precarious living, as a typical state for mid-century American blacks and as particularly perilous for a private detective, is fully developed here. Closely related is the intransigence of racism. contrasted to the promise of reform held out by the Civil Rights Movement.

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Solving the mystery for which he was hired is always a serious mission for Easy Rawlins, and it is one that invariably places him in ethical quandaries as well as risky situations. While Easy’s clients are typically other black people, in this novel his client is a white man—another private detective—who wants to find Betty, a black woman he knew in the distant past. Delving into the woman’s related social and employment situations, Rawlins unearths distressing information about sexual abuse, supporting the theme of combined racial and gender disparities amidst LA’s most privileged classes.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 248

Black Betty, like Walter Mosley’s other Easy Rawlins novels, is a hard-boiled detective mystery. Rawlins traverses a grittily realist Los Angeles, one replete with seamy characters, police brutality, and racial tensions. The novel also resembles the others in Mosley’s series in that it is as much historical as detective fiction: It takes place in a very specific 1961, one in which both President John F. Kennedy (elected just the year before) and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., are important figures. Easy Rawlins comments on the social, political, and racial landscape wherever he goes in Los Angeles. He has a kind of social mobility that allows him to move easily between the white and the African American worlds, even changing his voice when he talks to white patrons.

Easy’s passage between these two worlds is part of the deeper meaning of the novel; as he says, he identifies with both the slave Jim and the title character of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Mosley depicts a city where both truth and freedom are conditioned by shifting racial lines. Easy’s alliances across these lines—with Saul Lynx, for example, or with the Japanese American librarian Miss Eto—underscore the city’s racial geography, but references to Kennedy and King portend a better time in America. As critics have noted, finally, a large part of the meaning of the novel circles around Easy’s attempt to establish his own identity in this violent world.

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