Walter Mosley: Little Scarlet

Walter Mosley: Little Scarlet

It's only fair to expect long-running mystery series to decline in quality over time, but no one seems to have told Walter Mosley. Starting with Devil In A Blue Dress in 1990, Mosley has released nine books featuring Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a Los Angeles-based black WWII veteran who always ends up on the investigating end of a mystery. Logic dictates that formula should have taken over by now, but while Mosley relies on familiar elements—particularly appearances from a rich and ever-growing supporting cast—he always finds new ways to propel the series, most of which have little to do with clues or sleuthing. His mysteries continue to satisfy, but the overarching story of Rawlins' life became the series' main attraction long ago.

Little Scarlet finds Rawlins settling into as comfortable a middle-aged existence as his uncomfortable city will allow. A property owner, high-school janitor, and proprietor of a side business in "Research and Delivery," Rawlins works hard to please the girlfriend and children who, through one means or another, have all found their way into his West L.A. home. He knows L.A., but as Little Scarlet opens, the city he knows has changed virtually overnight. In the wake of the Watts riots, it's become a place where the old rules don't apply, as Rawlins discovers when the police recruit him to investigate a riot-related death that's gone unreported out of fear that it will spawn more racial upheaval.

Like all mysteries, Little Scarlet keeps its action in the great divide between the apparent and the actual, which allows Mosley to explore the vagaries of the era's racial politics and continue his secret history of a Los Angeles far removed from glamour. Rawlins encounters prejudice both subtle and brutal, from unspoken social codes to the police department's institutional bigotry. Always a smooth operator more concerned with manipulating those around him than in some counterproductive notion of pride, the Rawlins of Little Scarlet seems to sense for the first time that the established order might crumble sooner than expected. The riots embolden him to talk back and assert himself in ways he never has before; without necessarily approving of the violence, he recognizes that destruction might be necessary in order to make rebuilding possible. While Rawlins' good intentions never flag, he walks on feet of clay: Women tempt him, he bends laws for the greater good, and he gets angry a lot. But these qualities, every bit as much as his detective skills, make him the kind of protector that people from the forgotten parts of Los Angeles need, especially after their world has shown it can burst into flames.

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