Walter Mosley may well be one of the most versatile writers of
contemporary American fiction. While he is best known for his
historical mystery novels featuring private investigator Easy
Rawlins, he easily and fluidly works within other genres, such as
science fiction and mainstream fiction. It is Rawlins, however, who
is Mosley's bread and butter, and it is always a pleasure when
Mosley returns to him and to mid-20th century Los Angeles. Mosley
captures that era in the same manner as Raymond Chandler and Ross
McDonald, but from a markedly different perspective.
Mosley's latest Rawlins novel arguably ranks among the best of
Mosley's work; certainly it is one of his most accessible. Mosley's
plots occasionally become so complex that the reader can become
lost in the events. This is not the case with LITTLE SCARLET,
though it is by no means a simple tale. It is a multi-layered story
of complicated people and the wrong, unintended and otherwise, that
is so often done.
LITTLE SCARLET takes place during and after the Watts race riots.
While Rawlins doesn't condone the senselessness of the
participants' actions, he does understand their rage and
appreciates that a corner has been turned. It is against this
backdrop that Rawlins finds himself summoned by the LAPD and asked
to assist in the investigation of a murder. A woman named Nola
Payne, known as Little Scarlet, was brutally murdered in her Watts
apartment at the height of the riots. Payne had given shelter to an
unknown white man who had been attacked by rioters; the man is now
a suspect in the investigation of her murder.
The police are reticent to send white officers into the area due to
the riots and feel that Rawlins's race, coupled with his abilities
as an effective, albeit unofficial, private investigator, will be a
better method of determining who murdered Payne. Rawlins, though
not part of the riots, is feeling the exhilaration of the mood of
the times and cannot resist repeatedly and, at times hilariously,
bearding the police in their own den.
Rawlins also receives a letter of empowerment as a consultant from
the Deputy Police Commissioner. This serves as an interesting plot
vehicle, not only for getting Rawlins out of occasional jams, but
also for increasing his stature among his friends, such as Raymond
"Mouse" Alexander. There is one vignette involving Mouse, Rawlins
and the letter that provides some comic relief in this otherwise
grim story of duplicity, anger and forbidden passions. Rawlins
discovers the identity of Payne's murderer soon enough, but the
catalyst for the murderer's anger is a mystery until this fine work
nears its conclusion. Along the way Rawlins grapples with a number
of temptations of the flesh and spirit, trying to remain true to
others but first and foremost to himself, a good man trying to stay
that way in a flawed and dangerous world.
Rawlins has steadily developed and grown as a character and, like
the work of his creator, is not easily defined or characterized. It
is this quality, with Mosley's poetic turns of phrase, memorable
characters and realistic settings that make LITTLE SCARLET, with
his other work, such worthwhile reading.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 30, 2010