Mystery Writer Walter Mosley Tackles the Mean Streets of L.A

Article excerpt

MAKE no mistake: For all his geniality and modest temperament, mystery writer Walter Mosley is not a man to trifle with.

Solid of build, quick of intellect, with luminous eyes that cut to the core, Mr. Mosley likes nothing better than to engage in good-natured give-and-take about society, poverty, and racism in post World War II America.

Acclaimed author Mosley, a favorite of President Clinton, is the creator of two of the toughest sleuths in American mystery-genre fiction: Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins, and his sidekick, Raymond (Mouse) Alexander, both of whom are black and who hail from the mean streets of South-Central Los Angeles.

Easy Rawlins, like his name, can be easy going. But that Mouse! Cross words with this fellow, whom even Easy dreads, and one is likely to experience a quick exit from terra firma. And when Mosley leans back in his chair, narrows his eyes, smiles ever-so-slightly, and says that "Mouse is a hero," even this journalist is alerted to tread carefully. Easy and Mouse, after all, are not fellows to annoy.

Mosley's fourth and latest Easy Rawlins caper, "Black Betty" (W.W. Norton, 255 pp., $19.95) is deservedly garnering the praise from critics accorded his earlier novels, "Devil In A Blue Dress" (1990), "A Red Death" (1991), and "White Butterfly" (1992), also published by W.W. Norton.

"Black Betty," in which Easy tracks down a woman he met as a young boy, takes place in 1961 and is set against the background of the new Kennedy administration, the civil rights struggle, and the cold war.

"Most mystery writers {such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett} have taken the fetters off their heroes," Mosley says. "Their heroes are set free from the concerns of family, jobs, or responsibilities. But I've done just the opposite with Easy Rawlins. Easy struggles to pay the mortgage or meet the rent payment, just like other working people. He has children. He owns property and has responsibilities," Mosley says.

Still, something invariably happens to unsettle Easy's routine. Usually it involves a white person who comes into the black community and calls on Easy for help. Easy resists the request, but finally submits - often because there is an element of intimidation involved.

Mosley's books crackle with action, mayhem, and amorous liaisons. But they also vividly recreate a lost time and place: the black community of Los Angeles in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. The post-war L.A. described by Mosley is morally and politically corrupt; for blacks, L.A.'s streets are oppressive. But there is music too, the wailing riffs of jazz woven through Mosley's first book, "Devil In a Blue Dress. …