Easy Rawlins

Created by Walter Mosley (1952--)

“If I knew where I stood then I had a chance of getting where I was going.”

-- Cinnamon Kiss

In post-war Los Angeles, EZEKIEL "EASY" RAWLINS, an unemployed black vet desperate to hang on to his small house, agrees to do a little private snooping for a local gangster, tracking down a woman, and soon discovers that he has a knack for the work. That memorable first appearance, 1990's Devil in a Blue Dress, with its vivid sense of time and place, drew immediate and widespread praise. New York Magazine called it "a black Chinatown, a cross between Richard Wright and Raymond Chandler" and U.S. President Bill Clinton, then riding the crest of his popularity, cited Mosley as one of his favorite authors. Since then, author Mosley has continued the series, jumping ahead a few years at a shot, each book offering a vivid snapshot of the black experience in America -- and particularly Los Angeles, in the latter half of the 20th century; a sort of alternative social history.

Unlike some larger-than-life P.I.s, Easy is refreshingly human, even in sometimes disappointing ways. He's a proud man trying to cope with the social injustices of his time, as well as his own personal demons and prejudices; and he doesn't always do a great job of it. He can be cruel or petty and sometimes cowardly, and too easily led astray by temptations of the flesh. As well, his obsessions with acquiring wealth and privacy sometimes lead him into making poor decisions. But his faults are tempered by his passion to rise above what has been pegged as his station in life and an innate sense of what's right and especially what's wrong.

His first step was to get an education. His second was to acquire property. So far, through the series, he's managed to do both, but the price Easy must pay to hang on to what he's got seems to be steadily rising. He knows -- as a black man living in the last half of the twentieth century in the United States, and from his own experiences -- how easiliy it can all be stripped away.

Still, by the second novel, A Red Death (1991), Easy's obsession with real estate has paid off. He's started to amass a fair share of property, including a few apartment buildings and a couple of houses. He's uneasy (sorry) about his wealth, though, and afraid of drawing too much attention to himself, so he pretends to be a janitor, communicating with his tenants through an intermediate. Mind you, it's the age of paranoia anyway -- the Red Scare is in full bloom. And he's elected himself the adoptive father of Jesus, the abandoned mute child he saved in Devil in a Blue Dress.

By White Butterfly (1992), set in 1956, Easy is still living in Watts, but has acquired a wife, Regina, and a baby daughter, Edna. Yet he can't quite bring himself to tell Regina about his holdings, hiding his prosperity like a guilty secret -- a secret that eventually breaks up the marriage. Regina leaves, taking Edna with her.

In Black Betty (1994), Easy has moved from Watts to West L.A. with his two (yes, he's picked up another one) adopted children, Jesus and Feather, but trouble -- in the form of racism and police harassment -- still follows him as he's hired to track down a woman he once knew.

By 1963, in A Little Yellow Dog (1996), Easy seems to have finally escaped the streets, having landed a job as a custodial supervisor at an all-black school, a safe, respectable job with a pension, and more importantly, a medical plan for Jesus and Feather. Not only is he doing well, but he's managed to find jobs for both his old friend Mouse, and Mouse's long-suffering mate, Etta Mae. But somehow, the streets manage, inevitably, to drag him back.

Mosley intends to bring the series right into the present, but he's also apparently going to drag us along on some interesting detours, along the way. In 1997, he released Gone Fishin', a prequel of sorts to the series, wherein Easy and Mouse go off on their first adventure. And in 2001, when the Washington Square Press began releasing new editions of the series, each included a bonus short story, which were subsequently collected and published as Six Easy Pieces (2003). The stories fill in many of the gaps between the novels and should really not be ignored by any fan of the series.

Since then, Rawlins has leaped from strength to strength, leapfrogging ahead in time. Bad Boy Brawly Brown (2002) takes place in the early days of the civil rights movement, and features the return of Mouse (last seen laying stone cold dead in A Little Yellow Dog), Little Scarlet (2004) has Easy trying to solve a racially charged case in the aftermath of the Watts riots and Cinnamon Kiss (2005) has him working a case against the backdrop of the Summer of Love. And Blonde Faith (2007), purportedly the last book in the series, brought it all home, with Easy apparently heading straight into the black after driving over a cliff.

Or did it?

Six years later, Easy returned in Little Green (2013), which was shortly a year later by Rose Gold.

And of course, in the initial burst of acclaim and popularity, it didn't take long for Hollywood to come knocking. The result, 1995's Devil in a Blue Dress, was generally well-received, although I initially felt Denzel Washington, despite doing another typically solid if unspectacular job, was miscast as Easy -- a sentiment that Mosley himself apparently agreed with. At the 1993 Bouchercon, Mosley told me a film deal was in the works, and that he hoped Danny Glover would play Easy, but thought "the studio" would go with someone more bankable like "this guy Denzel Washington." and that Ice Cube (or was it Ice-T?) would supposedly play Easy's stone cold killer pal Mouse. Well, it turned out Washington did play Easy, but Mouse was played, with chilling, icy perfection, by Don Cheadle, then best known for his work on CBS' Picket Fences. The director was Carl Franklin, who was also responsible for the excellent noirish thriller One False Move.

And over the years (and several more viewings) Washington's take on Easy has grown on me -- so much so, that I'd love to see him tackle the role again. Washington has aged into the role nicely, and he's a much stronger and braver actor than he was back in 1995.

Mosley is also the author of the Socrates Fortlow series, a string of short, hardboiled morality tales about an aging ex-con just trying to get by, and the "Fear" series, featuring Paris Minton, a timid black bookseller in 1950's LA and his best friend, the dangerous but principled Fearless Jones, and a newer series about New York private eye Leonid McGill. He's also written several acclaimed science fiction novels, including Blue Light and The Wave, as well as RL's Dream, a novel about an aging bluesman obsessed with Robert Johnson. Mosley was born in Los Angeles and currently lives in New York.

THE EVIDENCE

  • “In the south if a black man killed a white man he was dead. If they police saw him on the street they shot first and asked questions... never.”

-- Cinnamon Kiss

UNDER OATH

  • "(Devil in a Blue Dress) Fun to read. Unforgettable characters. Solid plotting. Takes me into its time and setting effortlessly, making me feel I'm an insider in another world. Written with grace and verve."

-- Vince Emery, The 14 Best Private Eye Novels of All Time (2012)

  • "(Devil with a Blue Dress was) the start of a major series that offered a head-spinning look at L.A. in the post-war 1940s from a point of view that writers of that day like Chandler and Browne would never have imagined."

--Dick Lochte, The 14 Best Private Eye Novels of All Time (2012)

NOVELS

SHORT STORIES

COLLECTIONS

FILMS

  • DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS...Buy this video...Buy this DVD...Watch it now
    (1995, TriStar)
    102 minutes
    Based on the novel by Walter Mosley
    Screenplay by Carl Franklin
    Directed by Carl Franklin
    Producers: Jesse Beaton, Gary Goetzman
    Associate producers: Donna Gigliotti, Thomas A. Imperato, Walter Mosley
    Executive producers: Jonathan Demme, Edward Saxon  
    Original music by Elmer Bernstein 
    Starring Denzel Washington as EASY RAWLINS
    and Don Cheadle as Mouse
    Also starring Jennifer Beals, Tom Sizemore, Maury Chaykin, Terry Kinney, Mel Winkler, Albert Hall, Lisa Nicole Carson, Jernard Burks, David Wolos-Fonteno, John Roselius , Beau Starr, Steven Randazzo, Scott Lincoln

RADIO

  • BLACK BETTY
    (2000, 89.9 FM and KCRW.com)
    Nine one-hour episodes
    Originally broadcast: Monday-Friday, December 18-22, 2000.
    An original unabridged dramatization
    Based on the novel by Walter Mosley
    Directed by Ted Lange
    Executive Producer for KCRW: Jacqueline des Lauriers
    Associate Producer: Marilyn Love
    Music by Kevin O'Neal.
    Starring Charlie Robinson as EASY RAWLINS
    and Lonnie Smith as Mouse
    Also starring Virginia Capers

PLAYS

  • A RED DEATH
    (1997, Chicago Theatre Company)
    Original run: September 12,-November 9, 1997
    Based on the 1991 novel by Walter Mosley
    Written by David Barr
    Directed by Delai Jolly Gray
    Starring Douglas Alan-Mann as Easy Rawlins
    with Daniel Bryant as Mouse
    Also starring Steve Broussard, Kimberly Hebert, Martin Bedoian, Anthony Rodriguez, Tom Lentz, El Feigo N. Goodum

Mosley was approached by Douglas Alan-Mann, artistic director of the Chicago Theatre Company, an all-black company, about adapting Mosley's novel for the stage, and Mosley granted it, pending script approval. The show made its debut in 1997(with Alan-Mann himself playing Easy) and ran for a couple of months, to mostly sold-out house and favorable reviews. A noteworthy artistic touch was the prominent use of the colour red as an accent in various costumes. The play won the MWA's 1998 Edgar Allan Poe Award, in the Best New Play category.

RELATED LINKS

The author's official site.

Gar Anthony Haywood on Little Green, from the LA Review of Books.

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks, as always, to Gerald So, for keeping me honest. And yes, that's Denzel as Easy in the photo up there. From the 1995 film, of course.


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