Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.