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6 april 2018
I started reading Walter Mosley's novels right from the start, with Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990. But along the way, as sometimes happens with exceptionally prolific writers, I couldn't keep up. As a result, even though I've been reviewing books on this website for almost 15 years, I've never reviewed one of Mosley's here. Finding Little Scarlet (2004) in a thrift store enabled me to catch up a little bit, though I will have to get very serious to catch up with Mosley in earnest.
There are several timelines to keep straight when discussing Walter Mosley: the author's own development, your own acquaintance with him, and the fictional chronology of his characters – especially his original private-eye hero Easy Rawlins, who stars once again in Little Scarlet. In this novel, Rawlins has just survived the 1965 riots in Watts. Others haven't. Some imposing police officials summon Rawlins, but significantly, to seek his help. A black woman has been murdered during the riots; the prime suspect is a white man; and the police need Rawlins to solve the murder case before adverse publicity sets Watts aflame again.
Technically, then, Little Scarlet is a murder mystery. But (slight spoiler of a 14-year-old book here) the murder proves rather easy to solve: if, like Rawlins, you have contacts in African-American Los Angeles, contacts the smarter elements of the police brass are coming to realize they lack. Since not much detection is involved, Little Scarlet, like most detective novels, is really about other things.
Mosley's novel is about a cultural watershed c1965. Black people are still under the thumb in L.A., still forced to be subservient. But the riots, stupid and wasteful though they may have been, have forced the white authorities to understand that they cannot take subservience for granted. Everywhere he turns, Rawlins senses that something has changed in the atmosphere of the city, and of America as a whole. The laissez-passer from the deputy police commissioner that he carries in his pocket is only the symbol of this shift. It doesn't immunize Rawlins – but it's a sign that the dynamic has tilted, for once, in his direction.
Little Scarlet is also about the backstory to its murder case, a backstory of internal American migration, passing for white, bad seed, and serial killings that nobody has bothered to investigate because the victims are African-American women. And of course the novel is also about Rawlins' own personal backstory. Even though the cases he works are highly reminiscent of Ross Macdonald in their intricacy, headlong violence, and deeply-buried secrets, Easy Rawlins is in one respect not much like Macdonald's PI Lew Archer. No matter how deeply his current case affects him, Archer is always onto another when the next book opens, and seems largely to have forgotten what went before. Rawlins doesn't; he has a very long arc indeed. He has a family, unlike Archer or Philip Marlowe. He has mercurial, murderous associates who reappear in novel after novel, like Mouse Alexander and Jackson Blue, who are in many ways more memorable than Easy himself. I have a lot of catching up to do but will enjoy the task.
Mosley, Walter. Little Scarlet. 2004. New York: Warner, 2005.