We gave it a B
When Easy Rawlins first appeared, in 1990’s ”Devil in a Blue Dress,” he was an unemployed WWII vet taking on detective work for quick cash. His prime assets were a cool resolve and a loyal friend named Mouse. In Walter Mosley’s sixth Rawlins mystery, Bad Boy Brawly Brown, the hero has evolved into a working stiff who wants nothing more for his work than a home-cooked meal. He begins his narration by grieving: ”Mouse is dead.”
Yet the late cohort, killed off in 1996’s ”A Little Yellow Dog,” is as much a presence here as the title character. Easy experiences the pain of his mourning as a ”fever burning like a funeral pyre.” The ghost of his tough-guy sidekick ups the humidity of Mosley’s noir atmosphere, and atmosphere — a pungent sense of place, a steady feeling of menace — is what the author does best. ”Bad Boy Brawly Brown,” itself merely a serviceable mystery, is the latest volume of a work that succeeds by evoking a singularly overripe Los Angeles.
The zigzagging plot is a straightforward matter: It’s 1964, and Ezekiel Porterhouse Rawlins has settled down with a pretty girlfriend and two adopted kids. His old friend John has a new girlfriend named Alva. Her son Brawly is a young man adrift. ”Twenty-three,” Alva says, ”but he’s young for his age.” They haven’t seen him lately but hear he’s fallen in with the Urban Revolutionary Party, an outfit resembling the Black Panthers. They call themselves freedom fighters. An older black man counts them spewers of ”vigilante communist bulls—.” The LAPD believes Brawly to be at the center of a criminal conspiracy. ”I’ll look him up,” Easy tells the family, ”then come back here and tell you what I think.”
The task is, of course, deceptively simple. Easy soon discovers a rotting body, a cache of guns, a pile of cash, and secrets concerning cheatin’ women, police informers, and a payroll heist. He witnesses a police raid, a murder, and a savage beating or two. Women best described as dames have ”lips…poised in the permanent expectation of a kiss.” The hero gets a bit bruised and then gets his man, narrating it all at a firm clip. Upon finding a corpse, for instance, he assumes a familiar hard-boiled stance: ”From the moment I heard John’s voice I had expected trouble. I was looking for it. But the dead man had sobered me somewhat. I didn’t want to get that far into somebody else’s grief. I didn’t want to be used, either.”
This is standard PI stuff, but much of the richness of ”Bad Boy Brawly Brown” derives from Mosley’s skill at connecting the dots between the genre conventions and the particular texture of a life. In Rawlins, the private eye’s typical baggy-eyed existentialism — the cynicism and weariness, the spiritual isolation — is married to blue-collar values and a black man’s alienation. He’s wary of the cops in a way foreign to Philip Marlowe, and the Black Power plot offers room for quick-draw social observation. In the revolutionaries’ meeting room, Easy discovers a group of idealists who ”believed in the spirit of the Constitution and not the direction of the cash register…. Maybe, if I stayed there long enough, I might have believed it, too.”
One of the novel’s most glaring faults extends from Mosley’s desire to make Easy-reading of a dense tangle of liaisons. As Easy makes his rounds, he engages in dialogue that laboriously summarizes earlier discoveries, as if to update readers on anything they might have missed. Another misstep owes to the author’s efforts to satisfy fans eager for a glimpse of characters from earlier books. Easy repeatedly calls on old pals who pop up just long enough to give him a hand, then vanish into the haze, where they wait to walk on in later volumes.
Which brings us back to Mouse, who is most accurately tagged ”presumed dead”; as much is said here, and Mosley has vowed that the matter of that ”presumed” will be resumed in the next Easy Rawlins installment. Is that a cheat? Does ”Brawly Brown” have the feel of a book-length cliff-hanger? Yes and yes, but while most mystery writers churn out series, Mosley’s issuing a serialized epic, crafting what promises to be a shelf-length work nimbly clueing through unexplored shadows of American noir.