“I came half-awake, dead and dreaming. My eyes were open but I couldn’t focus on anything because I was still falling, as if the nightmare had followed me from sleep into waking world. I didn’t know where I was or where I’d come from. But the bed under me was turning and falling and I, I was sure, had perished.”
—from the beginning of “Little Green”
One of the intriguing aspects of contemporary literature is the author who chooses to place distance between himself or herself, and the locale they describe. Attica Locke, who writes about the South and her native Texas from her perch here in Los Angeles, is one example. Another, more prominent case in point is best-selling writer Walter Mosley.
Mosley has dabbled in numerous genres, including science fiction, the stage, and juvenile fiction, but has received the major portion of his notoriety for his hard-boiled detective stories featuring reluctant private investigator Easy Rawlins.
A New York resident for the past few decades, Mosley has placed his protagonist in his native Los Angeles over the last half of the 20th century. Framed thusly, he examines progress in race relations in this most American of cities through Easy’s adventures around his Watts neighborhood, and his often hazardous forays into the surrounding affluent, White enclaves he is obliged to visit in the course of his sleuthing.
This series was launched with the 1990s “Devil in a Blue Dress,” but received a pop-culture shot in the arm when then presidential candidate Bill Clinton proclaimed Mosley one of his favorite authors. In this yarn, like many of its successive tomes, the erstwhile aircraft factory worker is enlisted to solve a problem with origins in a section of town his retainer cannot go. Usually, he is hired by a White employer to find a person in the ghetto. In this latest outing, he is compelled to go up to Hollywood for Black clients uncomfortable in that neck of the woods. Easy’s unique trait is this: he can go where others can’t.
“Devil” was followed by the film version of the same title featuring Denzel Washington and, in a breakout performance as Easy’s maniacal sidekick Mouse, Don Cheadle.
Over the next 20 years, the series has followed Easy and the City of Angels, as they cope with America’s growing pains as it struggles to address its racial conflict.
In this latest, the 12th incarnation, “Little Green,” Mosley continues his tradition of inserting a color in the title, as our hero finds himself immersed in the hippie counterculture of the late ’60s. Even in this, the era of psychedelic enlightenment and uninhibited sexuality, the milieu of clashing lifestyles and eroding social barriers are just a mask, not quite covering the bitter reality that skin color remains the defining factor in these United States.
The Easy Rawlins mysteries offer a contemporary spin on the time-worn tradition of the detective yarn with its incorporation of classic “whodunit” elements with a topical, historic context, starting in the post-World War II era. In this way, he chronicles the great westward migration of a generation with roots in Louisiana and East Texas, within the façade of an engaging mystery (Mosley himself is the product of the union of a Jewish mother and a Black father who, like Easy, was a World War vet struggling to succeed in postwar America. His parents were unable to secure a marriage license despite interracial marriage being legal in the state of California).
In the grand tradition of the pulp novel begun in the 1930s, the protagonist travels in a world rife with “bottom-feeders” and authority figures every bit as corrupt as the minions they presume to govern. In this installment, the ashes of the 1965 rebellion still smolder in the dawn of the Age of Aquarius and its attendant social upheaval.
One device borrowed from the godfather of the mystery novel, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, is the apparent death of the hero, and his dramatic resurrection later. As “Little Green” unfolds during the course of its 292-pages, Easy is brought back from the jaws of death through the intervention of his violence-prone pal Mouse, and the home remedies of a Louisiana “conjure” woman.
In a pattern well established in his previous novels, he walks a slippery slope to avoid being waylaid by corrupt cops, and in this tale, entrepreneurial thugs hell-bent on profiting from the marginalized younger generation’s appetite for mind-altering substances. These and other obstacles stand in the way of his quest for the salvation of a Black teen (the eponymous “Little Green” of the title), his mind addled by LSD and in possession of a bloody laundry bag filled with cash, who like many of Easy’s previous clients, has made the mistake of involving himself in the folly of White folks.
In this, and the previous 11 narratives, Easy, in order to achieve a measure of justice in an unjust world, sidesteps the legal system. The manner and circumstances in which he does so, compels readers to examine the inequities of the system that oppresses him, and the world in which we live.
For those intent on nitpicking, there are plot lapses and logical missteps in “Little Green” to be pondered, but none of this takes away from Mosley’s considerable gifts as a wordsmith.