After making a hazardous living as a private detective in four of Walter Mosley’s previous novels, Easy Rawlins has found a position as supervisor of the physical plant at a junior high school. The job does not pay well, but it carries health insurance to cover Easy’s two foster children and it promises to be much less hazardous than life among the gangsters and drug dealers of Los Angeles’ lower depths. Easy’s plans fall apart early one morning when he is seduced in a classroom by the beautiful eighth-grade teacher Idabell Turner and when the dead body of Idabell’s brother-in-law, Roman Gasteau, is found on the school grounds. Not many hours later, Easy finds the dead body of Idabell’s husband, Holland Gasteau; he had been shot to death.
The plot takes on a comic dimension when Easy reluctantly takes on responsibility for Idabell’s obnoxious little dog, Pharaoh. Feather, Easy’s daughter, immediately falls in love with the dog, changing its name to Frenchie. One of the many subplots in the novel concerns the animosity between Easy and the dog; Easy would like to get rid of the animal, while Frenchie takes every opportunity to snarl at and if possible to bite the man.
There are several subplots and a number of unusual and colorful characters in A Little Yellow Dog, but the main plot has to do with Easy’s attempt to discover who killed Idabell’s husband and his brother, as well as investigating the possibility of a large drug deal gone wrong. Even Easy’s job is tied into the complexities of the action. He had decided to change occupations when the private eye business became too rough and too dangerous. Using his contacts and skills, he had saved Grace Phillips, the black mistress of Bertrand Stowe, a white school official, from the clutches of a gangster. In return Easy had asked for and received the position of maintenance supervisor at the Sojourner Truth Junior High School. Easy’s benefactor, his mistress, and the man whose job Easy had taken all figure in A Little Yellow Dog.
From the beginning of the investigation, Sergeant Sanchez is convinced that Easy Rawlins is the chief suspect. He knows of Easy’s earlier involvements with the police, he also knows that an anonymous phone caller has fingered Easy as the guilty party in a series of thefts from local schools, and he is scornful of members of minority groups who have not risen above their origins as he believes he has done. Easy’s feud with the principal of Sojourner Truth Junior High School and his reluctance to cooperate with Sanchez only fuel Sanchez’s desire to hang the murder on Easy.
Easy’s efforts to solve the crimes, assisted by his old friend and backup man, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, are stymied, and the situation becomes more complicated when Idabell reappears from wherever she has been hiding. She is terrified, she tells Easy, but will not tell him why. She has returned to seduce Easy one more time and to reclaim Pharaoh, intending to take him with her to her next destination. Easy drives her to the airport, but on the way she asks him to make a detour so that he can drop off a note for her at the home of her friend Bonnie. While Easy is delivering the note, someone shoots Idabell, who has remained in the car. When Easy returns, she is dead. The children’s croquet set she had taken with her is gone, but the dog remains. Easy deposits her body on a bench in a nearby park and later informs the police of the location of the body. Much to his disgust, he is left with the dog, but Feather, his foster daughter, is overjoyed to have the dog back.
In the meantime, Easy has learned that a number of teachers and other employees of the school, including members of his crew, had been socially involved with Idabell Turner. What had been rather genteel parties had turned into something more sinister when Roman Gasteau, twin brother of Idabell’s husband Holland Gasteau, had returned from abroad. The once-innocent parties had become locales for drug taking and drug dealing. Easy finds this out by questioning members of his staff, but they are reluctant to talk to the police, fearing they will be suspected of the murder of Roman Gasteau.
Trying to find out what the Gasteau brothers had been involved in, Easy visits a nightclub and illegal gambling operation run by a suave gangster named Philly Stetz. He meets Grace Phillips there; she has evidently backslid and is now on drugs and is once more a hooker. He arranges an appointment with another woman but while waiting for her in the parking lot he is assaulted and imprisoned by two gangsters who work for Joey Beam, a sometime associate of...