Walter Mosley's thoughtful detective gets second chance in 'Little Green'
At the conclusion of his 2007 novel “Blonde Faith,” Walter Mosley did away with Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins.
After 11 volumes featuring the African-American World War II veteran and thinking-man's detective, through whose eyes the social history of postwar Los Angeles unfolded, Mosley decided he had had enough.
“I'm finished with that,” Mosley, who's written more than 40 books, told CNN in 2009, when he was promoting a new series with a New York-based private dick named Leonid McGill. “I'm moving on.”
Not so fast, Mosley. Like Arthur Conan Doyle after he sent Sherlock Holmes tumbling off Reichenbach Falls, or more recently Ian Rankin attempting to put John Rebus out to pasture, the author has found that icing Easy — who debuted in “Devil in a Blue Dress” in 1990 and was indelibly played by Denzel Washington in the 1995 film of the same name — was easier (sorry) said than done.
So, at the start of “Little Green,” which has a color-coded title like all the Rawlins mysteries save the 1997 prequel “Gone Fishin'” (a bildungsroman set during Easy's boyhood in Texas), there's Easy, rising out of a coma. “I came half awake, dead and dreaming,” are the first words of the book.
It turns out that after the detective (and small-time real-estate mogul) drove his car off a cliff on the Pacific Coast Highway, his murderous friend, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander — played by Don Cheadle in “Devil in a Blue Dress” — found Easy among the hillside bushes and saved his friend's life.
Still, as “Little Green” gets going, our protagonist is all but dead. As he comes to consciousness in 1967, he agrees to do a job to pay back Mouse, who is keenly interested in finding a teenage boy gone missing somewhere in the neighborhood of the Sunset Strip.
To Mouse, the boy is known as Little Green, a sobriquet that will tie this book back to “Devil,” as it turns out. And though he'd be better off staying in bed, Rawlins takes the job. He immediately comes into contact with racist cops in an evolving post-Watts Los Angeles where blacks are beginning to feel empowered. “Little Green “also drops the middle-aged sleuth into the hippie sex-and-drugs counterculture, only the former of which he is willing to participate in.
The story sends Easy to see Mama Jo, a voodoo-potion priestess who predicted that he would rise, Lazarus-like, from the cliffside grave. She fixes him up with a supply of an elixir known as Gator's Blood that is sort of a black magic 5-Hour Energy drink.
“Little Green” is a book about resurrection, and little by little, as he interacts with his family, friends, close associates and sworn enemies in various social strata of L.A., Easy Rawlins comes alive.
And just as Easy is invigorated, finally feeling completely himself when a gun pointed at his chest fills him with a familiar fear of death, so is Mosley renewed in “Little Green.”
As Rawlins finds himself “back in the world where nothing ever turned out right but it kept right on turning anyway,” the author is rejuvenated right along with him. (In that staggering, prolific way that successful mystery-series writers have, Mosley has already completed a follow-up to “Little Green.”)
“Little Green” is a page-turner, but not a perfectly taut one. It's over-plotted, tying an extortion storyline involving a Los Angeles-based French insurance company into a story about drugs, greed and guns. Mosley also uses the lame device of prolonging the mystery in the book by conveniently having the title character suffer from LSD-induced amnesia.
But the author does fans of gritty, sharply observed, historical crime fiction a big favor by bringing Easy Rawlins back. And he does himself a solid, as well, because as much as Mosley might have grown sick of his creation, his familiar protagonist turns out to have plenty more hard-boiled life in him.
In “Little Green,” he's a richly complex family man, crime-solver and deal-maker with a Southern-born black man's perspective on the 1960s social upheaval unfolding before him. Mosley would have been foolish to kill him off: Characters as rich as Easy Rawlins are hard to come by.
Dan DeLuca is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer.