by Walter Mosley
Published by Little, Brown
320 pages, 2004
There's a Riot (or Two) Goin' On...
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Black, white. Who gives a damn? In a perfect world, of course, the color of someone's skin shouldn't matter. But we're not living in a perfect world, and certainly not one that's always rational. Fortunately, we still have a few writers, such as Walter Mosley, who stubbornly continue to try to make some sort of sense out of it for us. And Little Scarlet, his latest novel (after 2002's Bad Boy Brawly Brown), is arguably his strongest, most powerful and most potent work yet.
Defiantly, relentlessly, Mosley has built a career avoiding the easy course of sound-bite complacency, daring to take pokes at society's ills in both his fiction and his non-fiction, forever burrowing beneath the convenient scapegoats of race and class and gender to try to uncover some truth, or at least a bit of understanding. Even better for readers is the fact that he's not a dry, self-righteous lecturer determined to bore us to death, or some wild-haired rabble-rouser shrieking out doomsday fantasies on the sidewalk. Instead, he's one of our better storytellers.
In many ways, Little Scarlet neatly completes a trio of recent major crime novels that have dealt with issues of black and white racism as they played out in America during the last half-century or so. Robert B. Parker's Double Play found a physically and emotionally wounded, white World War II vet acting as a bodyguard for Jackie Robinson in 1947 -- the year Robinson broke major-league baseball's color barrier by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Meanwhile, George Pelecanos' Hard Revolution was a coming-of-age tale set against the slow, ominous build-up to the riots that finally erupted in Washington, D.C., right after the 1968 assassination of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., as seen (mostly) through the eyes of Derek Strange, a young black police officer. Like those other works, Little Scarlet is something of a high mark in its author's career. Provocative and challenging, bristling with intelligence and emotion, this novel is a fine recapitulation of Mosley's favorite themes and perhaps his most fully realized work to date. And though it doesn't quite have the zip of Parker's boiled-down prose, or attempt the epic sweep of Pelecanos' larger-than-life urban opera, with its seeming cast of thousands, Little Scarlet lacks neither personal depth nor narrative range, but combines both in a rousing literary tour de force.
In fact, Little Scarlet picks up almost exactly where Hard Revolution left off -- with a riot. However, Mosley's yarn begins in the immediate aftermath of the infamous Watts Riots of 1965, which devastated Los Angeles. The smell of smoke still lingers in the air, "wood ash mainly but ... also the acrid stench of burnt plastic and paint." The observer is Mosley's own series detective, Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, and it's through his eyes that we witness the action.
With their street-level depiction of the often treacherous, ongoing fandango of race relations in the United States, these three writers may have cast their unflinching gaze backwards, but they're doing more than merely wallowing in cheap nostalgia.
Play the race card? Hell, these master storytellers not only play the race card -- they have a whole deck of the things, and they're not afraid to shuffle 'em and make 'em do tricks. Taken together, Double Play, Hard Revolution and Little Scarlet serve as neatly subversive markers on a timeline of racial and social unrest, offering readers a bold, passionate and often angry look at America's recent past that continues to reverberate and illuminate more than a few shadowy corners of the present -- a present that finds the country once more being torn apart by opposing and intractable ideologies.
Or, as another would-be sage of the 1960s put it, "War, children, it's just a shot away."
As this book begins, Easy is picking through the rubble of his office building in the Watts neighborhood, one of several properties he owns. Easy is no longer the quick-tempered young Turk of past novels, but a middle-aged working man with his own "beautiful patchwork family," who is sliding slowly into a sort of middle-class respectability -- or at least as much respectability as he believes a man of his race and generation can expect. During the time Watts was in flames, Easy confesses with more than a little contrition, he "stayed shut up in [his] home, in peaceful West L.A., not drinking and not going out with a trunk full of Molotov cocktails."
But though Rawlins didn't participate in the city riots, there's certainly some kind of riot still raging inside of him, as the opposing forces of guilt, anger and frustration battle it out. Trying to understand -- if not exactly condone -- what has happened in L.A., he refers to the furor as a "five-day eruption of rage that had been simmering for centuries."
While he surveys the damage inflicted on the property of his neighbors and friends, a very large and angry black man accosts Theodore Steinman, who runs a now burned-out cobbler's shop in Easy's building, demanding payment for a pair of shoes lost in the fire. Without hesitation Easy steps forward, warning the man:
"I been in the house for some time now, trying not to break out and start doin' wrong. I've been patient and treadin' softly. But if you say one more word to my friend here, I will break you like a matchstick and throw you out in the street."
It's a telling moment, and an assurance that this is not a book that will break everything down into nice, convenient us-and-them slots. It is also a tense moment, at least until the shoemaker offers his irate customer $10. After the man leaves, Steinman shrugs off his concession. "He was hurting," the shoemaker tells Easy. "He wanted justice."
Still seething, Easy replies, "That's not our job."
Steinman, though, answers with a simple statement that will echo throughout the remainder of this novel: "It's all of our job. You cannot forget that."
The notion that justice must be done, and it must be done by all of us, isn't one that Easy Rawlins is sure he believes in anymore -- if he ever really did. Filled with "a passionate rage ... too big to hold in," Easy simply doesn't know what's right anymore. Which is why, when he's asked here by white police detective Melvin Suggs to help solve a potentially explosive murder case, his initial reaction is not to get involved. Wary, as always, of authority, and particularly of the cops, Easy contends that Suggs has the wrong man, and that he's "just a custodian at Sojourner Truth Junior High School" with "no official capacity whatsoever."
However, the "grubby," unkempt Suggs persists, eventually playing his trump card: He knows Easy has been operating as an unlicensed private eye, and he threatens to bring the law down on Easy's head unless he helps out in this homicide investigation. Rawlins isn't entirely convinced, but he agrees to hear Suggs out, cautioning that "If I don't like the way things smell I'm walkin' away."
The case on Suggs' plate is the slaying of Nola Payne, a local black woman in her mid-30s, known as "Little Scarlet" because of her red hair. In the aftermath of the riots, with most Angelenos walking on eggshells, this case is a political landmine -- especially since the prime suspect in Nola's demise is a white man with whom she'd been involved, and because Nola may have been raped before being strangled and shot. Mishandled, this case could rip the city apart all over again.
Fortunately for readers, Easy doesn't walk away -- although he threatens to, loudly and often, throughout this story. And things certainly start to smell. As Easy confides to Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, his sometime-partner and a walking time bomb himself, "This shit has fucked me up. I'm lookin' for this killer and the streets I'm walking down today ain't what they were last week."
As Easy pokes around, seeing what he can find out, unofficially, about Nola's murder, his desire for justice -- or, perhaps, revenge -- slowly grows, in dangerous tandem with his rage. It's a rage he shares with Detective Suggs, whose own outsider status within the LAPD makes him a surprisingly good match for Easy.
Drawn with broad but sympathetic strokes, Suggs, like Rawlins, is far from perfect -- both of them victims of their era, both essentially decent men who, in their own ways, want a better world. When Suggs (a white man!) offers Easy (a black man!) his hand at their first meeting, it's another warning sign for Easy that his world is in danger of some serious upheaval. His burgeoning relationship with the oddball cop also demonstrates just how far Rawlins has progressed in this fine series, which began with Devil in a Blue Dress (1990). Knowing he was once openly distrustful of all whites, especially those in positions of authority, it's almost breathtaking to hear Easy admitting to a developing -- albeit uneasy -- fondness for Suggs. Keenly aware of the chasms that divide them, these two nonetheless make a compelling team. Their troubled but evolving relationship is one of the highlights of Little Scarlet -- a promising association that we can only hope to see more of in future installments of this series.
The American black experience -- or at least what some people who watch too many music videos think of as the black experience -- is hot right now. However, Mosley, unlike a few other writers now introducing black sleuths, is too smart to try bludgeoning gullible readers with an idiosyncratic sense of "street cred." He sees no value in creating an African-American superhero/superfly/superstud cartoon. There's no shuck, no jive, no schtick in his books. Instead, Mosley glides effortlessly around the caricatures, and gives us players who are refreshingly authentic and vibrant, right down to their all-too-human imperfections. And Easy, Mosley's hero, is the best of the bunch -- a real man as warped and flawed and twisted by his own prejudices, biases, weaknesses and history as many of the whites he comes across, but perceptive and self-aware enough to realize it. If we had any doubts of that, they are wiped away by Rawlins' conflicted reaction, in Little Scarlet, to a fetching younger woman, Juanda, whose clearly amorous attentions threaten to upset the settled existence Easy has been laboring toward all these years:
I (sometimes) harbored the mistaken belief that I had left my rude roots behind. I owned apartment buildings and a dozen suits that cost over a hundred dollars each. But a tight dress on a strong country body and the prattle that I had heard since childhood sent a thrill through my heart.
You don't have to be black to identify with Easy -- just human.
This is also Mosley's most strongly plotted novel, and fans will enjoy seeing Easy actually working an investigation for once, instead of just being swept along by events. His world is, as always, vividly rendered, with deft prose and telling details. The members of Rawlins' extended circle of family and friends show up in these pages, including Mouse, who lends Easy a bloody hand. Even Paris Minton, the hero of another Mosley series (Fearless Jones, Fear Itself) executes a cameo turn.
But the star of the show is, of course, Easy. Drawn into the delicate probe of Nola's murder, he comes to realize that there's more than one sort of upheaval going on around him. His comfortable life is not nearly as secure as he had thought, and the Los Angeles he's come to know has been changed forever by the recent racial violence. It also dawns on Rawlins that the forces of injustice and violence lurk not just "out there," but within each and every one of us. And it's this discovery of a shared, if flawed, humanity, coupled with Easy's apprehensive relationship with Suggs, that really drives home shoemaker Steinman's early, tossed-off pronouncement.
Fortunately, Mosley refuses to fall into a hollow game of finger-pointing or blame-laying. By mining the recesses of the human heart, shining a fierce light into its darkest corners and admitting that all is not right, he has given us an important reminder that finding justice is, indeed, a job for all of us.
Black, white. Who cares?
In Little Scarlet, his eighth Rawlins novel, Walter Mosley suggests that perhaps we all should. But more importantly, he implies that we ought never to let our awareness of the things that tear us apart override our concern for those things that bind us together. In confronting us with our differences as well as our similarities, Mosley has created a beautiful patchwork of his own. | September 2004
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributing editor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. He lives in the Antelope Valley, just north of L.A., and some days he admits to wanting a riot of his own.