Read Oct 2015
For such a plot-driven genre, often the most interesting elements of hard boiled crime fiction tend are the characterisation and social critique.
This is absolutely the case with Little Scarlet, one in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels – a hard boiled private detective series with the fundamental twist that Rawlins is black.
The twisting plot, as always in this genre, is constantly shifting. It’s the LA riots, it appears that a white man killed a black woman at the tail end of the riots, and the police ask Easy to look into it. It gradually transpires that the white man was not involved and it’s a serial killer called Harold who is killing young black women, driven by his Mum’s history as a black woman who tried to to pretend she was white.
It’s a strong plot, written in classic hard boiled style. But what matters most is the characterisation and the social critique.
Easy Rawlins is a powerful protagonist. He does everything you want from a PI in a novel like this – he’s terse, he’s a loner, he’s prone to violence, and he struggles between the woman and family he loves and his desires for others.There is a moral ambiguity to Easy, who wants to do the right thing, but often that clashes with his desires on the one hand, and with what society – and the law in particular – thinks is the right thing, on the other. Hard boiled heroes are often drawn with this kind of stereotyped masculinity, and although Easy fits the category, it’s hard not to like him.
The social critique in the Rawlin’s series is what makes Mosley stand out. Easy is black and the ongoing theme running through the series is the inequality and injustice experienced by African Americans in mid-twentieth century US. It’s present in the police force, of course, and their treatment of people, but also evident in the politics and social life throughout the novels.
What Mosely does really well in Little Scarlet in particular is highlight the anger and emotion that racial inequality leads to, and the way it manifests itself as major events like the LA riots and ongoing incidents of ‘resentiment’ – where suppressed and sometimes unarticulated feelings occasionally burst out – that are part of the everyday lives of many of the African Americans that feature throughout the book.
Racial injustice plays a causal role in everything from the race riots and the killer’s motives right through to the way Easy is treated by the police and the life chances of a young woman that Easy falls for.
It’s this – the combination of plot, character and critique – that makes Mosely a powerful novel.