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More Trouble on Easy’s Street

Photo by Vincent Laforet

Does there exist a literary icon more thoroughly American than the California gumshoe? Marked (or scarred) by a self-created solitude and forever operating along that wavering line between established order and an improvised, personal code of honor, the laconic, resourceful private dick endures. Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is, by now, a recognized member of that rough, august company — one of the club and yet, as a black man, also quite definitely and even willfully apart. Since his first appearance 15 years ago in Devil in a Blue Dress, Rawlins and his band of miscreant friends — especially the eternal badass, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander — have appeared in more than a half-dozen Easy Rawlins mysteries. Some of the books (A Little Yellow Dog comes to mind) have been less than satisfying; others, like last year’s drum-tight tale of murder and redemption in 1965 Watts, Little Scarlet, further burnish Mosley’s rep as one of the genre’s most imaginative practitioners.

With his latest, Cinnamon Kiss, Mosley has written what is certainly the most emotionally complex Rawlins book to date, delving deeper and more subtly into Rawlins’ pain and rage than ever before. In the process, however, he’s also devised a storyline so filled with hairpin twists and human oddities that it feels as if the narrative threads of several different books have been spliced hastily together, creating a provocative but, at times, barely decipherable tangle.

The plot involves several murders in 1966 Berkeley and Los Angeles; amateur-porno photos of a child-raping Nazi; a handful of valuable bearer’s bonds; a do-gooder blond lawyer with the “figure of a Norse fertility goddess... a Poindexter built like Jayne Mansfield”; a dead white heir to a problematic fortune and his gorgeous, African-American lover, Philomena “Cinnamon” Cargill; a diminutive, rich private detec­tive named Robert E. Lee; gen-u-wine proto-hippies with names like Reefer Bob and Dream Dog; a stone-cold, government-trained assassin and torturer named Cicero; and, as in all of the Raw­­lins books, a snaking parade of hot women of every imaginable ethnicity, race, shape and size, each one angling to get Easy in the sack.

That Mosley manages for the bulk of the proceedings to keep the actions and motives of the members of this menagerie even remotely coherent is testament to his powers as a mystery novelist. That he continues to expertly explore the sources of Rawlins’ appeal as well as the man’s equally evident flaws, bringing new elements of Easy’s (generally bloody) history to light with each new chapter of each new book, attests to his dedication as an artist.

In Cinnamon Kiss, Easy is now a bona fide L.A. private eye, thanks to his work on the Little Scarlet case. Rawlins had helped douse a sputtering fuse in the ruins of Watts, his legwork proving that a white man was not the murderer of his black lover, thus forestalling more bloodshed and chaos. The cops were appreciative, and they showed it, granting Easy a private detective’s license. But in tandem with his new outward legitimacy and solid-citizen visage, Rawlins must struggle with demons both familiar (racism, and all of its concomitant ills) and new (a sharp wedge driven between Easy and his live-in lover, Bonnie, and a life-threatening illness befalling his adopted daughter, Feathers).

Alone in a motel room, absently fingering a Luger pistol (see Nazi scumbag above), Rawlins mulls his state: “I sat back thinking about the few good years that I’d had with Bonnie and the kids. We had family picnics and long tearful nights helping the kids through the pain of growing up. But all of that was done. A specter had come over us and the life we’d known was gone.”

In the time-honored, insular way of literary private eyes everywhere, Rawlins faces that specter on his own terms, relying on his street smarts and surprising emotional reserves — including, when needed, the stark emotion of fury — to keep those he loves safe, and either collar or bury those who cross him.

The Rawlins series is, increasingly, the sort of ongoing literary experiment that one feels privileged to witness unfold, even when the unfolding reveals evidence of familiar old cracks and flaws. Mouse Alexander, for instance — with his feral enjoyment of slaughter, larcenous strivings and alcohol-fueled, nightlong balling sessions — feels more like Mosley’s take on some half-remembered folk legend or myth, rather than a character at home in a series of naturalistic tales. But why dwell on one problematic sociopath when it’s Ezekiel Rawlins who is the rightful heart and soul of the series. Mosley’s dogged, gradual unveiling (or discovery) of his protagonist’s motives, flaws, decency, brutality, spitefulness and charm is as artful and committed a character study as readers will find in modern American letters.

CINNAMON KISS | By WALTER MOSLEY | Little, Brown | 320 pages | $25 hardcover