"...lyng to your detective is one of the privileges you get billed for."
In the long, mostly dry period for black eyes between Ernest Tidyman's ground-breaking Shaft, and Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins, Richard Hilary kept the flag flying, with a series of entertaining and thoughful (and now, unfairly forgotten) paperback originals about Newark, New Jersey private eye EZELL "EASY" BARNES.
Easy is an appealling eye, an ex-fighter and ex-cop, a tough guy who smokes unfiltered Chesterfield's, is partial to Black Velvet or Pabst's beer (brewed in Newark) and "too much coffee, too little food." He also has a thing for hats, sporting various fine examples of haberdashery throughout the series. To relax, he fishes under the Park Avenue Bridge, a short walk from his apartment, or works in the community garden.
Just a regular guy's guy. Oh, and his best friend is known as "Angel the Sex Change," a flamboyant Hispanic trans-sexual rendered in broad but sympathetic strokes here. Angel was a man, but now he's a full-time Jersey girl, a sometime stripper/dancer/snitch and often Easy's best source for inside police info. She's also the source of the groan-inducing malapropisms that comprise the titles of this series.
And she has the hots for Easy, a feeling that isn't exactly mutual. Easy still thinks of her as a "he." "I'm too old to go changing my point of view," he admits. Still, Angel is his best friend, and Angel stands by her.
Easy describes his job as "one-third bank drops and payroll pick-ups, one-third motel-watching for divorce cases, and one-third waiting for some merchant's stockboy to back up to the loading dock after hours. Maybe twice a year something more interesting rolls in."
For when that something rolls in, Easy likes to be prepared -- he has a Colt .38 revolver, a Colt .22 automatic, a Smith and Wesson .38, and a Charter Arms .44 Bulldog. He prefers a Bianchi quick-draw holster, and he carries a thin steel gardening knife in his hip pocket. He also has a bullet-proff vest, lockpicks tucked away in a fake ballpoint pen, along with a thick, night-stick style aluminium flashlight. All this plays well against the fact that Easy's actually a peaceful guy who prefers fishing and gardening in his spare time. And that's another treat in this series -- the very real sense of community in these books, exemplified by Easy's committment to the the community garden. The neighbourhood is truly Easy's family.
Easy grew up in foster homes in and around Newark. Somewhere along the line, he got involved in boxing, and had nine pro fights. He served in Vietnam as an MP, and when he left around 1960, he was still the Army's light heavyweight champ. Returning Stateside, he joined the Newark Police Department, while attending night school to get a degree in Police Science. Eventually he landed his sheepskin, and took the sergeant's test, placing fifth. He then had to sit on his ass and watch forty or fifty white cops promoted ahead of him. Ticked off by the apparent racism, Easy chucked his eleven-year career to become a P.I. in 1971.
The first book in the series, 1987's Snake in the Grasses, takes place in 1978, and the second, Pieces of Cream, takes place six years later, and Pillow of the Community makes another leap. It's this time-leaping technique that's subsequently become something of a trademark in Walter Mosley's series. In fact, I've always wondered about the fact that Mosley's hero and Hilary's share the same nickname. Coincidence, or a tip of the fedora?
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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