Walter Mosley's mean streets

Watts, 1965. Racial tensions have erupted into rioting, LBJ has accused the rioters in the streets of L.A. of being no better than the Klan, and Martin Luther King, attempting reconciliation, has fled the scene, discouraged. This is the setting for "Little Scarlet," Walter Mosley's ninth Easy Rawlins murder mystery, demonstrating his sustained commitment to address the devious layers of racial hatred while concocting a really good read.

The sign on Easy's office door reads research and delivery. Denied an investigator's license by the white establishment, his business remains a service to the black community. Easy's a character whose goodness, even under steamy duress, remains intact. When mean, lean Deputy Police Commissioner Gerald Jordon "hires" him to solve the murder of a young, black woman found shot and strangled, the detective's world is changed forever. The barriers between the races have been torn down. He's free to move, albeit with a hall pass, in the world of white privilege and power, and simultaneously freed to feel his rage.

The deputy commissioner's goal is to keep the riot's aftermath a definite after, and not a mere lull. Justice is as far away as kindness. A white man was seen fleeing the murder scene. The murder cannot be disclosed for fear of triggering more riots. Easy knows he's "hired" for his connections and street smarts, and to find a token killer. Intoxicated by the strange, topsy-turvy adjustment of realities, and seething with a muscular righteousness, he vows to find the real killer.

Three things come to mind about Mosley's work: race, grace and pacing. The ethical ramifications of race remain a staple, but the message is sweetened by surprising plot turns, vivid characters and atmosphere. The investigation bumps along in the few, tense days following the riot. When Easy sleeps, it's as if pushed off a cliff into a collapsed heap, to barely recover and to force himself out again into the creepy late-night hours, or into a sinister daytime, in the stink of smoldering ruins.

It is impossible when reading Wal-ter Mosley's work not to feel the rough, broken edges of his world through the sensibility of race. No surprise, then, that at the heart of this murder mystery is rage. The murder itself, revealed to be part of a string of like murders, is committed by someone twisted, deformed and damaged by racist hatred.

A wonderful character with the inspired ability to turn adversities into virtues, Easy Rawlins moves in this world of racist hatred, the sensuous comfort of his black women and moral ambiguity, with savvy and tenderness, sorrow and rage.

"The Man in My Basement" opens with a knock on the door, which will prove a wakeup call for Charles Blakey, the protagonist of Mosely's most recent novel. A literate loser with a serious work allergy, Charles lives alone in the beautiful home that has been in his family for seven generations, and seems unable to arouse an interest in any occupations other than the solitary pleasures of drinking, masturbating and reading sci-fi. But even these "life-style choices" require some bucks, and Charles is broke.

Anniston Bennet is the stranger at the door with a strange proposition. He wants to rent Charles' basement. A man who navigates the world, blown by the sails of entitlement, a man in suit and tie from New York City - one has immediately to wonder why.

When Charles' financial circumstances turn dire, he acquiesces to the bizarre proposition. Shortly afterward, boxes arrive in the mail. Disconcertingly, they contain the components of a cage, and a set of instructions. The three-month "guest" reveals an unsettling desire to be incarcerated in the basement. In the roles made hideously available to the host and his "guest" - prisoner-keeper, master-slave - how will Charles define himself? A black man trapped by the weight of history, Charles, although wryly self-aware, cannot free himself from dispirited passivity. Thus the allure of the man in his cage increases, as Charles seizes on his captor role, while putting himself in the position of a student to Bennet's worldly, if corrupt, power. He thinks of the arrangement as a kind of tutorial, and is hungry to learn the White Man's secrets.

Among Mosley's numerous honors is the Annisfield Wolf Award, which acknowledges works enhancing the understanding of race in America. In "The Man in My Basement," as in "Little Scarlet," the power relationship between Black and White is turned upside down. The author has described this as "a novel of ideas," and indeed, crucial concerns drive the narrative: the legacy left by slavery, the long reach of corrupt power, the inability of love to heal such ghastly wounds. But this is Walter Mosely, who serves up his serious concerns with the confections of crisp pacing and well-drawn characters.

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