With the publication of Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990, Walter Mosley began his rapid ascent to his status as one of the United States’ major mystery writers. Mosley soon developed a large and enthusiastic reading public, including, among others, President Bill Clinton, whose endorsement of Mosley in 1992 sent his sales skyrocketing. Reviewers praise Mosley's suspenseful plots, his vivid re-creation of time and place, and his skillful use of language. However, they agree that the author's greatest gift is characterization, which Mosley himself has said is his primary focus. Whether they appear in bit parts or in ongoing major roles, Mosley's characters are always believable and never stereotypical or predictable. Moreover, those who recur in several novels are shown changing as the times and their circumstances change and as they themselves grow older and more mature.
One can see this kind of development in Mosley's best-known detective, Ezekiel (“Easy”) Rawlins. Easy first appears in Devil in a Blue Dress, which is set in 1948, when many returning veterans of World War II found themselves out of jobs and worried about paying their bills. As a twenty-eight-year-old African American man in a world dominated by whites, Easy has few prospects. Therefore, when a white man offers him cash to find a missing mistress, Easy takes the case. However, he soon discovers that things are not as simple as they seem and, moreover, that he has been thrust into a world of moral ambiguity, where, even with his best efforts, all he can achieve is an approximation of justice. Thus Mosley establishes the pattern that will be followed in all the Easy Rawlins books.
However, as America changes, the issues Easy must deal with also change. A Red Death (1991), is set at the time of the McCarthy witch-hunts in the early 1950's. Black Betty (1994) takes place in 1961, when the Civil Rights movement is under way. In Bad Boy Brawly Brown(2002), the year is 1964, and Easy finds himself dealing with activists, impatient at the slow rate of change, who are forming an urban guerrilla movement that will use violence to force a racial revolution.
Over the years, Easy, too, has changed. In Little Scarlet, the year is 1965, and Easy is forty-five years old. He has acquired some property, though he is careful to conceal that fact from his long-time friends, most of whom are still living as they did a decade before, and from his clients, many of whom come to him from the poverty-stricken streets of South Central Los Angeles. He now owns a home, where he lives with Bonnie Shay, a stewardess, whom he may well marry. He also has two adopted children, a son, Jesus, now a teenager, and a young daughter, Feather, whom he took in when she was just a baby.
As Mosley has pointed out, during the 1960's African Americans began to enter the professions in considerable numbers; therefore it is at this time that Easy begins to think of himself not just as a casual, case-by-case investigator but as a professional detective. Although he does not yet have a license, Easy does have an office and, as his friend Jackson Blue points out, he even has an answering machine.
Given his own success, Easy is shocked and troubled by the Watts riots. On one hand, he can understand why the blacks of Los Angeles are so angry. Many of them are unemployed, and those who have found work are routinely underpaid. Even the most respectable black citizens are subject to being stopped and harassed by white policemen, and none of them can count on being treated by whites as any more than inferior beings.
On the other hand, Easy knows that it is the African Americans themselves who will suffer most when the white shopkeepers, who have, in many cases, been scrupulously fair to their black customers, decide not to rebuild their burned-out stores but instead to flee the area, taking with them the jobs and services they provided for the community. Moreover, though Easy understands that the widespread looting is as much a by-product of cumulative anger as a demonstration of greed, he soon sees at first hand that the fencing of stolen goods has become one of the most profitable businesses in the area.
Wisely, Easy decides to hole up in his office, emerging only to give aid or protection to the storekeepers in his immediate neighborhood. He is amazed when a white detective, Melvin Suggs, seeks him out, offers to shake his hand, and asks his help in solving a crime that remains unreported: the murder of Nola Payne, or “Little Scarlet.” With Watts still smoldering, Easy knows that white policemen do not dare to venture out alone to investigate. However, the case must be solved, for Nola was seen rescuing a white man from a mob and taking him into her apartment. The...
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