I love American crime novels. I especially love American crime novels set in Southern California. It’s a whole sub-genre with giants like Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and Sue Grafton as examples. I recently added Walter Mosley and his character Easy Rawlins to my mix. I just finished the first of five (or so) and it’s stellar stuff.
Rawlins is different from Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Kinsey Milhone because he didn’t start out in law enforcement. He’s just a man building airplanes at a Los Angeles manufacturing plant in 1948 who gets fired and takes an odd job for a gangster so he can pay his mortgage. One thing leads to another and he starts embracing this investigator stuff.
The back story is that he’s a WWII vet from Houston who came to LA to avoid a spot of trouble. It’s not that he committed a crime in Houston per se, but his crowd was getting a little rough so he came to LA to start fresh. It was looking like a great call too: decent job, small house, plenty of places to party. But then his boss pushes him a little too hard and he stands his ground and gets canned.
The plot twists and turns through a stack of LA bad guys and crooked politicians. Good action, intrigue, and character development. Oh, and the woman, in the blue dress – she’s a devil from a few different angles.
Rawlins is a great character: humorless, straightforward, and insightful. There are some deep explorations of race and class from Rawlins, like this:
Talking with Mr. Todd Carter was a strange experience. I mean, there I was, a Negro in a rich white man’s office, talking to him like we were best friends – even closer. I could tell that he didn’t have the fear or contempt that most white people showed when they dealt with me.
It was a strange experience but I had seen it before. Mr. Todd Carter was so rich that he didn’t even consider me in human terms. He could tell me anything. I could have been a prized dog that he knelt to and hugged when he felt low.
It was the worst kind of racism. The fact that he didn’t even recognize our difference showed that he didn’t care one damn about me. But I didn’t have the time to worry about it. I just watched him move his lips about lost love until, finally, I began to see him as some strange being. Like a baby who grows to man-size and terrorizes his poor parents with his strength and stupidity.
Man that was cool. See what I’m saying; humorless, straightforward, and insightful.
** PLOT KILLERS FOLLOW **
Rawlins also has a somewhat non-standard sense of private investigator morality that I found refreshing (finally, someone kept some dirty money!). I can’t wait to see where Mosley takes this guy. The problem is, I’m generating quite a backlog with all of this serialized stuff, so I may not get to Rawlins again until the end of the year. That’s a good problem to have though, I think.