Charcoal Joe: An Easy Rawlins Mystery (Doubleday, 2016) 320 pages. $17.95
Ever since I read Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, I have been buying anything that Walter Mosley writes. He is a master storyteller, and Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, along with its sequel The Right Mistake, provides the philosophical insights of Socrates Fortlow that are as important to American literature as the Simple Stories of Langston Hughes. Earning commercial success in noir fiction, with detectives Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, and Leonard McGill, Mosley has used that genre to reveal the suppressed history of black experience in the United States, especially in California. However, Mosley is not limited to crime novels. He has proven his ability to write science fiction and political allegory – The Man in My Basement is particularly relevant.
You have to like the detective for the story to work. As Easy Rawlins himself said, “ I believe it is my psychological makeup that makes me a good detective. I’m 90 percent pragmatist and the rest superstition” (209). In fact what underlies noir cynicism is a broken romantic. It could be lost love, or it could be rampant corruption where innocence should prevail. Or it could be a combination of those elements, with a bit of racial prejudice thrown in, this time in 1968 California, following the aftermath of the Watts riots:
In Watts, people spoke the same language in different dialects and at separate schools. For darker-skinned citizens employment was synonymous with toil. (39)
But even more than that, you have to like the supporting cast, and among Mosley’s best creations is Mouse:
He was mostly evil and definitely a killer but black men in America had learned centuries ago that the devil not only offered the best deals—he was the only game in our part of town (13)
This novel introduces Charcoal Joe, a more cunning and scary character, who
was somewhere between sixty and seventy, not heavy or thin. I imagined if he stood up he’d be five and a half feet tall. His danger was primarily an intellectual experience—with the exception of his deep voice. He looked like a school teacher in pink overalls but you knew, if you had the brain, that his power was something to reckon with (63—64).
The crux of the case, according to Charcoal Joe, was that the police
arrested a young man who had the misfortune of being found leaning over the bodies. That young black man only wanted to help. He didn’t wanna hurt nobody. He had gone to Stanford and UCLA, got himself a PhD in physics before his twenty-second birthday, and they still arrested him, charged him, slammed that iron door, and closed the book (65).
This seems very plausible, given the number of times Easy himself gets pulled over merely for being black in an upscale neighborhood. Police harassment is a central issue in this novel, as it was before and after the Watts Riots.
As it continues to be into the present day.
Easy’s central dilemma is that “Seymour was innocent; but innocence was rarely the deciding factor for a black man on trial for his life” (135). Issues of race and social class underlie the narrative, giving this book an edge on its cynical insights:
Being white and poor or black and poor on the streets of America trained you to hide feelings of guilt. If you were in one of those categories you always felt guilty whether you’d done anything or not. So when a policeman asked you what you knew, you had to remain cool-headed. Mastering everything from your furtive eyes to the quaver wanting to come out on your words (134).
Among the many re-occurring characters from previous novels, one of my favorites is the backwoods witch, Mama Jo, to whom Easy turns for help hiding Joguye Cham, an African prince bound in a wheelchair, and Bonnie, whom Easy had wanted to marry. Mamma Jo really belongs to New Orleans, but I relish her herbal tea that causes Easy to see straight. Mosley is remarkable in his ability, with just a few pen strokes, to vividly bring this griot to life:
Her skin was kissed by night, and her eyes were dark enough to see evil that poor mortals like me couldn’t even imagine (68)
The Easy Rawlins novels build, one to the other, with characters who appear so authentic and believable, reoccurring from one book to the next, that it is hard not to love them, flaws and all. It’s the kind of television series that I would love to watch on PBS. Easy Rawlins matures and develops as a fully complex human being. Following Little Green (2013) and Rose Gold (2014), this story brings all the major people in Easy’s life back, including Fearless Jones. It is, however, much darker in tone, with Easy becoming not only an accessory to murder, but also a murderer. Some people who are evil escape. Mosley, looking back to the late sixties, cannot forget the world we now live in. The present taints the past, not with nostalgia, but with smoldering rage.
Michael Karl (Ritchie)
June 20, 2016