It used to be that fictional detectives had a surplus of eccentricities, though scarcely a hint of a private life. But almost every sleuth to come along recently has been supplied with a sexual orientation and an ex-spouse or two, political persuasions, a health club membership, and a headful of childhood traumas-the whole autobiographical inventory. It’s supposed to humanize the hero, I guess, but too often the soap opera stuff just bulks out the novel, overwhelms the mystery, and never amounts to much. (Robert B. Parker’s Spenser has been going with Susan Silverman longer than Dick Tracy courted Tess Trueheart, but what’s new about them — their choice of running shoes?) Nothing, and nobody, ever really develops. Except in the case of Easy Rawlins, the black ”confidential agent” created by Walter Mosley. A hypnotic, unpredictable, and serious storyteller, Mosley doesn’t just toss in Easy’s home address and a couple of problematic relatives and call it a private life; he’s concerned with delivering the real, messy thing.

Over the course of three good novels, Easy’s personality, along with his perceptions of himself and of his place and time — Los Angeles in the years immediately following World War II — have grown more painfully complex. He has gone from being a factory worker to a reluctant skip-tracer (”As a rule, I will not run down a black man for the law”), and from a poor homeowner with mortgage headaches (”that house meant more to me than any women I ever knew”) to the clandestine owner of seven apartment buildings (”Nobody knew about me. They didn’t know about my property. I felt safe in my secrets”). He has been a bachelor with a fondness for lawn work and illegal nightclubs, then a married man in a troubled marriage, a doting husband and an abusive one (”’Rape?’ I laughed. ‘Man can’t rape his own wife.’ My laugh died when I saw the angry tears in Regina’s eyes”). He has lost one child and adopted another. He has helped strangers and betrayed his best friends. Rawlins isn’t just the best new series detective around, he might be the best American character to appear in quite some time.

To get the most out of Mosley’s work, it’s advisable to read the novels in order — Devil in a Blue Dress (set in 1948), A Red Death (set in 1953), and the latest, White Butterfly (set in 1956).

The premise of the new one is virtually the same as 99 out of 100 contemporary thrillers: A serial killer is stalking the streets, murdering young women. (Because they’re black women, the victims aren’t ”photograph material for the newspapers.”) Pretty soon, though, all our expectations have been dashed; the mystery, such as it is, is wrapped up three-quarters of the way through (and without the hero ever actually meeting the killer), then suddenly the story veers off in unexpected, but entirely satisfying, new directions.

By the end, Easy is a changed man yet again, his soul troubled not only by the violence of his profession and the racism of his day, but by the recognition of his own failings and insensitivities: ”Defeat goes down hard with black people; it’s our most common foe.” Smoking Camels and cruising the mean streets of mid-century L.A. in his big Chrysler ”yacht,” Easy Rawlins should be around for a long, long time. A

Excerpt THE L.A. BLUES
I decided that I’d work out my problems with Regina after I’d seen to the job that L.A.’s representatives had given me.

But then I had to wonder at the strangeness of all those important white men thinking that they had to come all the way to my house in order to draft me.

I’d worked for city hall before but usually they called me downtown. They would have me wait on a cold marble bench while they preened and primped. Sometimes they’d call me to the police station and threaten me before asking my favors. But I’d never had a delegation at my house.

I expected Quinten Naylor, and maybe his white sidekick, but the people that had come were important. They were more important than one dead white ; girl. Women got killed all the time, and unless they were innocent mothers raped in their husbands’ beds, the law didn’t kick up such a big fuss.

Even though I’d eaten I had an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. I filled the hole with three straight shots of bourbon. After that I felt calmer. Enough whiskey can take the edge off sunshine.

By one-thirty I was ready to go. I’d put on gray slacks and a gray square-cut shirt. My lapels were crimson, my shoes yellow suede. I had a light buzz on and my new Chrysler floated down the side streets like a yacht down some inland canals.

White Butterfly
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