Nightlife

Little Scarlet: An Easy Rawlins Mystery

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jul 5, 2004
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Reading one of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins or Fearless Jones books is a rare pleasure in that you always come away feeling that you’ve walked the streets of 1960s Los Angeles and have come back to your own time and place with a sense of having seen and heard the people of the age. That’s a tricky proposition, but Mosley takes things even further; he takes you out of your skin and lets you live for a little while in the thoughts and skin of a black man in 1960s Los Angeles, where a white man’s glare was tantamount to a death threat and the cops might pistol whip you for nothing more than breathing while black.

Easy Rawlins is a complex character. Over the span of the first eight books in the series, he has taken on the responsibilities of foster kids and the always troublesome balancing act of love. The world around Rawlins has remained more or less constant, though, and in this, the series’ ninth book, the paradigm of white fear and hostility and suppressed black rage is changing explosively. The new book, entitled -Little Scarlet-, starts directly after the Watts riots of 1965; even as the smoke still rises from torched neighborhoods, Rawlins finds himself pulled into an investigation involving the murder of a young black woman, the Little Scarlet of the title. She was not a street casualty killed in the violence of the riots; she was strangled, then shot, in her own apartment. The police cannot openly probe the crime because the chief suspect is a white man who rioters pulled from his car and beat; Little Scarlet apparently opened her door to him and gave him a place of refuge. If word gets out, another spasm of violence will inevitably follow.

Mosley has a way of making every scene count on multiple fronts, and as Rawlins tracks clue after clue to close in on the killer he realizes that the world is a changed place -- and so is his own inner landscape. The riots have brought about a new balance of power between blacks and whites; even as a white waitress who has served Rawlins for years now trembles in fear while bringing him his breakfast order, the white policemen who have lorded an unquestioned authority over the lives and persons of blacks now show a grudging modicum of respect toward Rawlins. This doesn’t make it all better; far from it. Rawlins still despairs at the weight of a monolithic social hierarchy that puts himself and all blacks at the bottom, speculating at one point that "[m]aybe there was a whole factory of death working twenty-four hours a day under the city. Black people being thrown down onto rotting spikes that chopped them into pieces and then dropped the pieces into vats of acid. Maybe they were selling our blood and using our teeth and bones as ivory."

Bitter as his ruminations may be -- and handy as those ruminations come in when Rawlins rationalizes about helping his friend Mouse move looted goods -- Rawlins finds time to fall in love (or lust, anyway) with Juanda, a sweet, down-home woman who helps put him in touch with the people and the facts that will change the way he sees the case, and give him cause to think long and hard about his commitment to his long-term love interest, Bonnie. As furious as the black-and-white politics may be, there’s an undercurrent in the book of gender-specific double standards; Bonnie, the jealous Rawlins fears, has feelings for a foreign prince she met abroad, and though the issue is all but settled now, it previously came close to ending their life together. Though Rawlins never seems to realize it consciously, the question of sexual equality works on him as he wrestles with residual jealousy concerning Bonnie and the fierce temptation that Juanda deliberately serves up for him.

The question of whether or not to get into bed with Juanda boils long and hot, but it’s just one more uneasy alliance that Rawlins may have to make as he closes in on the truth behind Little Scarlet’s killing. Rawlins is not a perfect man or a flawless investigator; he struggles against prejudice every day but he also struggles against his own prejudices, partly because he recognizes the danger of becoming too complacent in the way he interprets the world around him (a bad idea when, say, pursuing a bad guy through a dark alley) but partly, too, because Rawlins is that kind of hero -- the one who is never content to say that his knowledge and judgment are good enough no longer to need revision. That’s a powerful, if subtle, message, and it flows nicely with the seismic social changes that serve as the novel’s backdrop.

by Walter Mosley

Publisher: Little, Brown. Pages: 306. Publication Date: July 5, 2004. ISBN 0-316-07303-2

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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