I forgot what it was like to read Easy Rawlins books. It’s been years, at least four installments ago, since I visited this slice of South Central Los Angeles. There’s a throbbing of the brain and a quickening of the pulse that happens. It’s no use dodging the jabs of poetry on every page. You’re going to get hit and you’re going to feel it.
Released a few weeks ago, Charcoal Joe is the newest mystery from the award-winning writer Walter Mosley. The novel finds lead character Easy Rawlins in the midst of major life changes; he’s a founding partner in a new detective agency and preparing to propose to girlfriend Bonnie Grace. But, no matter where he’s moved to, trouble always knows Easy’s address. This time, it comes knocking in the form of Easy’s old friend Mouse. The cold-blooded criminal visits on behalf of someone even more shady than himself, the ephemeral underworld figure called Charcoal Joe. The old but dangerous gangster requests Rawlins’ help in clearing the name of a young UCLA physics student unjustly accused of murder.
The case Easy takes on centers on Dr. Seymour Brathwaite, a book-smart but street-dumb 22-year-old genius-in-the-making. Seymour gets arrested when found at a crime scene in a house his mother is paid to clean. His grasp of the institutional strictures around him is feeble compared to his knowledge of the universe’s governing principles; he’s naive to an extreme fault. When Seymour finds out that Easy is friends with a high-level executive at a prestigious insurance company, he’s incredulous:
When Fearless was gone he asked, “You really know Mr. Blue?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“He’s an important man.”
I was looking at the slender, four-eyed murder suspect, trying not to let my anger get the better of me. I wanted to ask if what they taught him in college was to hate himself or did he just get that way on his own?
Seymour is also so removed from the world of crime that it isn’t clear why Charcoal Joe wants to help clear his name. But the backstory of the book’s title character provides some thematic clues. Joe is a curdled example of black excellence, a savant-level musician, visual artist, and gambler whose genius turned to graft and violence because other social avenues weren’t open to him. His funding of Easy’s investigation is a way of using his ill-gotten wealth to free Seymour from the invisible trap that’s clamped around the younger prodigy’s ankle. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Charcoal Joe’s main concern is the fragile social mobility that was slowly opening up to black folks in the late 1960s and the hazards that came with it.
Mosley’s writing evokes the rough lyricism of the hardboiled tradition, carved into being by meticulous observation of the human condition and transgressive imagining. As in previous novels, Charcoal Joe takes Easy through the various layers of Los Angeles’ social strata. He’s He upends the low expectations of peoples’ stereotypes with a smirk you can hear in your mind, and his exchanges with racist cops still tap dance along a tense, trickstery rhythm, like this one below at a crime scene:
The front door of the terra-cotta flat-roof, faux adobe home was open. A uniform stood sentry at the sidewalk.
This cop was just another barrier in my way.
“Crime scene, he said, putting a hand on my shoulder.
“Trieste called me,” I said. “Now remove your hand.”
Anger and fear live right next to each other in the chambers of my heart. I was ready to run or kill.
“What did you say?” The police officer demanded.
“I said, mothafuckah, remove your hand.” Wow.
The stunned look on that white man’s face was worth the risk. I don’t think he had ever heard a civilian address him like that.
“Norman!” a strong voice called. “Norman!”
The second in command turned around. “Yeah, Sergeant?”
“Send that man up here.”
“Send him up.”
I am quite sure that moving aside for me was one of the hardest things that Norman had ever done. He wanted to make me bleed. I had the same designs on him. It’s wild how people can come to hate each other without having even a passing acquaintance.”
Easy’s gotten older as the literary franchise has rolled on and this novel happens in the aftermath of the 1968 riots and in the midst of the Sexual Revolution. The changes in the air give Mosley a chance to play with some of the expected elements of a hardboiled detective story. In the main, the women here still hew the archetypes of the genre. Easy encounters ingenues, femme fatales and heart-of-gold sex workers as he works the case. But a few of them are written as acting on their own impulses and urges, not solely to serve as foils or titillation. They express lust on their own terms and yearning for higher purpose untethered to men that reflect an influence from the Women’s Lib ideals of the day. One character operates an ambitious hustle on a level equal to the baddest dudes in the game, an equality that’s more of a reflection of the full spectrum of human nature.
Whether it’s Easy Rawlins, Socrates Fortlow or Fearless Jones, Mosley’s characters have always bobbed and weaved through the labyrinth of institutional American racism to find justice for the wronged. But reading Charcoal Joe in the never-ending ugly moment makes that particular element vibrate at a higher frequency. Because he can move through black society’s workaday, folkloric, criminal demographics without suspicion, he has allies on the police force. But that thin film of privilege isn’t enough to protect him from the suspicion of cops or white citizens. In neighborhoods where real estate redlining, economic stratification and other laws of the land have been architected to keep Negroes out, anyone who thinks him suspicious can derail either his investigations or his life. Easy is always on fragile ground.
Over the last few days, I’ve been re-reading Early Autumn, one of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. The prose inside reminds me of all the ways that Parker’s writing was an exemplar of the evolution of the detective genre. Spenser’s first-person narration was lyrical, literary and ponderous but there was still heavy dollops of tough-guy posturing. There’s less of that in Charcoal Joe and in most of the Easy Rawlins novels. Easy has to be cunning and strategic because, even if he was justified, talking shit to someone and then whupping their ass would unleash a police system built to stifle and corral black lives. His tender relationship with 11-year-old daughter Flower and growth into a small business owner are some of the most charming parts of the book, but they’re also part of Easy’s life that would get snuffed quickly if he stepped wrong. One of the most impressive things Mosley does in the book is a repudiation of the hollow premise of respectability politics in Charcoal Joe. The simple actions of being unassuming and acting “right” are no guarantee of black freedom. Seymour may be an upstanding academic genius but he can still get locked up or killed on the flimsiest of pretexts. That’s the way the system worked then, Charcoal Joe reminds us, in a present-day context filled all-too-painful reminders of what hasn’t changed.