After reading (or rereading) many of the classic detective novels in the past few months, I have come to two conclusions. First, I read way too many detective novels. Secondly (and more importantly), in all truly great hardboiled detective stories, the actual mystery is secondary. Granted, a labyrinth plot that keeps one guessing is always a plus. But all the true greats of crime fiction (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy et al.) have realized early one what has taken me some time to understand: It is not the plot, it is the world the story occurs in that is important. The finest mystery plot in the world means nothing if the reader does not believe the world presented actually exists, at least on the page.
I state this merely as a preamble to my main topic, the novel BLACK BETTY, by Walter Mosley. It is a good mystery. It has intrigue, deception, betrayal, racism, and murder. It is complex enough to demand a second visit. But, more important than the plot, Mosley has created the world of 1950's Los Angeles in such vivid and believable detail that you'd read the novel even if it were a mere travelogue.
BLACK BETTY marks the fourth appearance of Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, an unwilling investigator who is more concerned with providing his children with a good home than he is with solving a case. It is to this end that he accepts an offer of two hundred dollars to track down Elizabeth Eady, a sultress from his past who has gone missing. As Easy once again delves into the lives of others, he visits worlds he wishes to escape from, and worlds he wishes to join. He also realizes that there is no real difference between them.
Easy ranks up with Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade as one of the finest literary detectives. He is tough, resourceful, intelligent, and oddly eloquent. It's also good to see the return of Mouse, Easy's childhood friend/nightmare. Mouse is a killer, and is all the more terrifying for his believability. Like all of Mosley's characters, you get the impression that they have lives beyond the page, that they do not exist merely as foils for Easy.
But that is true of Easy's entire world. In a few simple, elegent sentences, Mosley can describe a character more vividly than most authors can do with pages of exposition. Their manners of speech, their beliefs, their dreams. Mosley can size up an individual like almost no one else can. Even minor characters, such as Ortiz and Jackson Blue, linger in the memory far longer than many lead characters of other novels.
Mosley's Easy stories, despite their being lumped into the sometimes simpleminded detective genre, are always more than they appear. Mosley embues his writings with a palpable sense of rage. The common, almost routine racism that Easy encounters every day gives the stories a compelling weight that his literary predecessor's sometimes lacked. It is a viewpoint that could overwhelm the story, but Mosley is far too skilled to let it happen. Even as Easy muses about Martin Luther King and "the young Irish president", he understands the difference between political rhetoric and day-to-day reality. Easy's world may be fictional on the surface, but it exists, and continues to exist all around us.
BLACK BETTY is a tremendous detective novel that works on many levels. It is a fine example of the detective genre. It is a perfectly realized world unto itself. It is an indictment of how little we have advanced in the past fifty years.