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A Darker Shade of Noir | The Nation

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A Darker Shade of Noir

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In the pivotal A Little Yellow Dog, Mouse enters the usual climactic confrontation armed only with a meat cleaver and is fatally shot. Driven to kill off this deus ex machina as spirit of the race, Mosley didn't publish another Easy novel for six years. But although Mouse remains dead in the disoriented Bad Boy Brawly Brown, he haunts it--Easy can't stop wondering what Raymond would have done, or lacerating himself for his loss. Easy believes that if he hadn't drawn his friend into the mysteries that are a detective's fate, Mouse would still reign as king of the ghetto--admired by men and adored by women, although mellowing a bit because he killed his father and, blessed with a heart after all, feels bad about it.

About the Author

Robert Christgau
Robert Christgau is senior editor and chief music critic of the Village Voice.

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The Fearless Jones novels of 2001 and 2003 turn on a safer, simpler version of the Easy-Mouse relationship, a dichotomy that recalls such pairings as Rex Stout's housebound Nero Wolfe and athletic Archie Goodwin. The cowardly bookstore owner Paris Minton is a less obsessive detective, with none of Easy's self-searching or violent undercurrent; the scarily intrepid Fearless Jones is a less avid killer, with a chivalrous code of honor. But Mosley couldn't stay away from his anima. For five installments of the deft Six Easy Pieces--six stories that originally baited six 2002 Easy reprints plus a new one to bait the collection--Easy tries to relocate a Mouse he can't believe is dead. In each he finds yet another murder instead, with killers who include a white security thug, the neglected teenage son of a crooked Cajun garage owner, an overprotective black mother and Mouse's widow. The sixth story begins with a rapping on the door. Mouse is so well named that 6-foot-2 Easy doesn't realize his friend has returned from the dead till he looks down. How about that? All it took to heal the little man's life-ending injury was the voodoo of Mama Jo, a conjure woman who dates back to Gone Fishin'.

Yet the two new Easy books find Mouse in a subdued mood, while Mama Jo emerges as more than a plot device. In Little Scarlet, about a redheaded black woman murdered during the Watts uprising, Mouse runs looted goods with a white partner, and Easy survives the big shootout alone; in Cinnamon Kiss, about the murder of a radical white lawyer in an Oakland abloom with hippies and interracial love, Mouse fails to lure Easy into an armored-car robbery and instead does the detective a series of favors that require his intelligence and his dangerous reputation but not his deadly force. As ever, Easy needs Mouse alive to feel fully alive. But now he handles the dirty work himself, and in both books Mama Jo, "like an African myth come to life in the New World," heals Easy's battered body with potions that "rivalled the medicines most doctors prescribed." African-American artifacts were major plot elements in The Man in My Basement and one Fearless Jones novel, and Mama Jo too embodies Mosley's turn from the survivalist cunning of black street knowledge to the visionary wisdom of black history. But note that her remedies "rival" the white man's rather than supplanting them; the premise of Cinnamon Kiss is that Easy needs big money to send his critically ill young daughter to a clinic in Switzerland.

Mosley is anything but a separatist. In Bad Boy Brawly Brown, Easy disentangles a friend's son from black-nationalist gangsters who call themselves the First Men, and the integration that comes with the civil rights movement excites Mosley's closest scrutiny. After leapfrogging from 1948, the last four Easy novels take place in 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1966. In Little Scarlet Easy hunts down a homeless serial killer whose parents passed for white but who turned out too dark-skinned to maintain their cover. And though the bad guys in Cinnamon Kiss are Nazi collaborators and their enablers, its racial intricacies are unmappable. The murderer is a white public-interest lawyer with eyes for Easy. The title character is an optimistic, ambitious, sexually pragmatic young African-American woman who by the end is preparing to rise to the top of a New York brokerage, presaging the coming black capitalism in all its expedient hedonism. A black ex-soldier doing penance for the Vietnamese village he destroyed has adopted the little girl who was its sole survivor. And then there's Robert E. Lee, a mean, rich, shady white PI who leaves Easy wondering who's the better man because he can forgive his woman for trying to kill him when Easy can't even live with an infidelity.

Mosley was 13 when he watched his father fight the urge to go out and join the Negroes trashing Watts's crude joke of an infrastructure, and he was a full-fledged adolescent by Summer of Love time--just old enough to fall into the trap of romanticizing his own hopeful youth and the historical hopes it fed off. So though you could say he has gotten hung up savoring the moment when integration became a reality--one twist of Little Scarlet is the credibility Easy has gained with the white cops who've dogged him since his first case--you could also say he can't bear what happened next. The Socrates Fortlow books Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned and Walking the Dog, their protagonist a repentant murderer back on the streets after twenty-seven years in stir, present today's black LA as a disaster zone where brave souls still carve out lives worth living. Both are winning and satisfying but, relative to the Rawlins novels, slender. As someone who anticipated Zolaesque Rawlins reaching into the present, I wish Mosley would move on. We need Easy's take on the poverty programs, Maulana Ron Karenga, the integration (and Latinization) of LA politics, the crack epidemic, Bill Cosby and O.J. Simpson and Rodney King and Maxine Waters and Suge Knight. I'd also love to meet the little guys Mosley would devise--the unemployed grifters and middle-class aspirants, the thugs and fiends, maybe finally even a few gays. The '60s were something, but excavate them too obsessively and you idealize them in spite of yourself.

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