The notion of a fictional black detective in '40s Los Angeles sounds gimmicky, but on the first page of his first novel Walter Mosley proves he has the talent to make this idea work. Audaciously, he steals the opening of Raymond Chandler's "Farewell My Lovely"--where white detective Philip Marlowe visits a black bar--rewrites it from the point of view of a black customer, and turns a familiar world inside out.
Mosley has a lot of fun upending our preconceptions. His hero, Ezekial (Easy) Rawlins, doesn't set out to be a detective. He's just a laid-off aircraft factory worker looking to make his mortgage payment by hunting for a missing white woman known to frequent black nightclubs. But by the end of the story, he's been beaten by cops, shot at by gangsters and lied to by everyone from a mayoral candidate to the eponymous Daphne Monet--and he loves the work enough to make a career of it.
"Nobody knew what I was up to and that made me sort of invisible," Rawlins explains. "People thought that they saw me but what they really saw was an illusion of me, something that wasn't real." In other words, the "Invisible Man" has turned a social liability into a professional asset.
Young girls: The acid irony behind his comment suffuses this novel, but Mosley keeps things from turning sour by making Rawlins as earnest as he is jaded. Here, the cynicism that pervades most detective fiction looks less like a literary conceit and more like the lot of the average black citizen familiar with the lies of powerful people and the casual brutality of cops.
Mosley's prose is a little stiff and his plot is far too complicated. But he has a keen eye for period details, such as the Japanese truck gardens that once lined the country roads between Los Angeles and Santa Monica. And his lowdown humor never deserts him. "Chirren is the most dangerous creatures on the earth," says a man with nine sons, "with the exception of young girls between the ages of fifteen and forty-two."
Best of all is Mosley's main creation, Easy Rawlins, a man as hard-nosed as he needs to be yet still capable of relishing decency when he finds it: "That was back in 1948, before Mexicans and black people started hating each other. Back then, before ancestry had been discovered, a Mexican and a Negro considered themselves the same. That is to say, just another couple of unlucky stiffs left holding the short end of the stick."