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 he doesn't always do a great job of it. He can be cruel or petty and sometimes cowardly, and sometimes a bit 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, 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.
Or did it?
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 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 surprisingly 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.
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. 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.
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