JUNE 2, 2021
A LITTLE MORE than 30 years ago, Walter Mosley published his first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), an immediate hit that would become a 1995 Carl Franklin film starring Denzel Washington. Mosley has produced at a dizzying pace since that debut, but the author remains inextricably linked to his first protagonist, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. In Devil, it is 1948 in Los Angeles and Easy, a black World War II veteran trying to survive in a world hell-bent on killing him, becomes a private detective after losing his job at an aviation plant. Now, 21 years later in Easy’s life, Mosley has published his 15th Rawlins novel after five years away from the character.
Blood Grove places us in 1969. Easy runs a private detective office with two partners, Saul Lynx and Tinsford “Whisper” Natly. The novel opens with Easy receiving a request from a white, shell-shocked Vietnam vet who believes that he may have stabbed an unknown black man in a faraway orange grove, but has no physical proof of the act. The white man, Craig, reminds Easy of a German soldier that he spared in the war and so he begrudgingly (is there any other way for Easy Rawlins?) takes on the case.
In anticipation of Mosley’s latest book and in light of the antisocial, slow world that we now inhabit, I decided to embark on a book binge and read the entire Easy Rawlins series. Over the course of the novels, Mosley weaves together a distinct, colorful, and dramatic world that rivals any of the cinematic fantasy universes that we’re now inundated with. Easy marries, has a child, then is abandoned by his wife, who relocates to Monaco with a deposed Ghanaian king. He adopts two children discarded in the midst of two separate cases. He tries to work as a head custodian for a while, but inevitably returns to the PI trade. And yet, all through the chaos of the 1950s and ’60s in Los Angeles, the most striking thing about Easy’s experience of the world is that it stays largely the same.
He is harassed and assaulted by police on almost every drive in Blood Grove, just as he was in Devil. Easy is rarely able to enter public or private spaces without being scrutinized. The general population spews racial epithets and threats his way with regularity. The differences for the lived experience of a black man in 1969, compared to two decades prior, are subtle. Easy notes any time he is addressed in a respectful manner by a white person, or left unmolested while in the company of a white woman.
Cultural touchstones of the ’50s and ’60s are largely left out of Easy’s narrative. The assassination of John F. Kennedy registers (more so because it is the same day that his best friend, Mouse, is shot) and the effects of Vietnam and Flower Power are certainly felt in Easy’s L.A. But the most consequential event, by far, is the Watts Uprising in 1965 — a flashpoint that cripples the local economy and remakes the way blacks and whites interact in L.A. Easy’s world is hyper-localized, and no matter how many friends he gains, how much money he makes, or how far the Civil Rights era has brought the country in 20 years, he is still an open target for the LAPD and the greater white community of Los Angeles.
Mosley depicts this distinct timelessness in the first several pages of Blood Grove. Easy is owed $80,000 from a client, but the money is tied up in court, so the client gives Easy a Rolls-Royce as collateral. Easy realizes that the car is more curse than blessing when he is immediately pulled over by police:
I pulled to the curb, put both hands on the steering wheel, and sat patiently awaiting the rendering of the calculation of my situation. That equation was a matter of simple addition: Rolls-Royce + black man without driver’s cap + any day of the century = stop and frisk, question and dominate — and, like the solution of pi, that process had the potential of going on forever.
And then, once the harassment is over, Mosley weighs the emotional impact that these repeat traumas have wrought on Easy.
The whole process took about half an hour. If I added up all the half hours the police, security forces, MPs, bureaucrats, bank tellers, and even gas station attendants had stolen from my life, I could make me a twelve-year-old boy versed in useless questions, meaningless insults, and spite as thick as black tar.
After one more traffic stop, Easy trades his car for something more innocuous. With the help of a slightly unstable veteran friend, Christmas Black, they investigate the scene of the alleged crime and begin to unravel the unreliable narration of Easy’s client. Soon, Easy is chasing after a succession of dead bodies and two heaps of money: one from an armed robbery with three fatalities, and another from the embezzlement of a mobster. Inevitably, Easy is harassed by professional criminals, police, and femme fatales alike. As Easy closes in on the truth, and discovers more dead bodies, the FBI imprisons him without warning.
What makes the abduction surprising is the deep contacts that Easy has within the LAPD. In addition to being a registered PI, he is a confidant of the second and third highest ranking officers on the force, due to various favors and collaborations on past cases. Throughout the series, Easy’s true superpower is his ability to wield his community and connections. His mechanic, Primo, can supply him with a car whenever he needs, he has multiple deadly allies — Mouse, the aforementioned Christmas, Fearless Jones — and his voodoo witch friend Mama Jo has brought Easy back to life multiple times. But none of it matters. No amount of local clout can protect Easy from the most powerful and ruthless domestic terrorist organization of the 1960s, the FBI.
The case is wrapped up as it often is: mostly dead bodies and some semblance of restorative justice. The formula works for Mosley because he continues to create compelling characters with complicated motivations. Whether it’s the reformed stripper femme fatales at the center of the story, or the black men that get caught up in the crimes, Mosley considers them all with care.
On some nights, like the one Pitman was remembering, the men who didn’t have good mothering, who didn’t listen in the pews to what the minister was laying between the lines, who didn’t believe in law because they had never been the recipients of justice — those men crossed a line in their minds. One of them says, why not? Why not do that thing that they think we do anyway? Maybe it’s stealing a bag of coal that won’t be missed or allowing that beautiful white daughter to enter when she comes knocking. Maybe it’s running your car over some soused-up peckerwood stumbling down a country road in the dark of night, alone.
Walter Mosley’s commitment to the realistic growth of his characters can border on frustrating for a fan. After all of their dangerous hijinks together, Mouse, the ultraviolent sometimes-partner of Easy, is semiretired and appears sparingly. For the last few books, when in need of backup, Easy has replaced Mouse with Fearless Jones, an uneducated and likable physical force with his own book series. Fearless is a pleasant presence, but the absence of Mouse’s chaotic energy is noticeable. Jesus, Easy’s adopted son who was rescued as a small boy in Devil, has also been lately missed. After marrying and having his own child, Jesus has been mostly absent from the books.
The most radical thing about the Easy Rawlins mysteries is in Easy’s quest for, above all else, stability. This attribute sets Easy apart from many of his erratic literary PI counterparts. As Easy tries to find justice for people in his community and avoid prison or death, his overarching motivation remains creating a safe environment for his children and loved ones. Whether or not he became a detective, this would be a tall task. Easy grew up in Louisiana and Texas during Jim Crow, then fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He moved to Los Angeles after the war and encountered a new brand of violent racism. Most superheroes have grand ambitions. Easy just wants to carve out a sliver of peace. Speaking from the future, we know that things won’t get easier in L.A. for a black man, but we also know that Easy can take it.