Bad Boy Brawly Brown
by Walter Mosley
Published by Little, Brown & Company
320 pages, 2002
Easy Does It
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
There must have been a specific moment in the career of Ross Macdonald, or perhaps of Raymond Chandler, when a person with extraordinary insight into the future could have said, "This is the book that shows its author has finally blossomed into a force that will make him a classic among his peers." Walter Mosley has arrived at that same point with Bad Boy Brawly Brown. This sixth novel about sometimes-sleuth Ezekiel "Easy" Porterhouse Rawlins is a fusion of the best elements of private-eye fiction. Easy is a man with a good heart and an often foolish head. He is tender toward those people he loves, such as his adopted children, Jesus and Feather, and the woman who now shares his life and his home in West Los Angeles, flight attendant Bonnie Shay. If you're in the way of his mission, however, Easy can handle you with a swift fist and a cutting remark. His cases may not always conclude the way he likes, and all too often terrible prices are paid by the people involved. But his convictions and morals are always solid. He is an Everyman P.I., and he is a joy to follow.
There is pain deep within Easy, as he warns readers in the very first paragraph of this novel. "Mouse is dead," he says, referring to his old rodent-faced crony, Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, who presumably perished from gunshot wounds at the end of the last Easy tale, A Little Yellow Dog (1996). "Those words had gone through my mind every morning for three months. Mouse is dead because of me." This is a substantial loss for Rawlins, as Mouse -- with whom he grew up in southern Texas -- was the yang to Easy's yin. Mouse was a remorselessly violent man. He was the muscle that Easy relied on when things became too threatening, or when Easy needed a certain level of intimidation thrown into the mix. Easy makes reference to Mouse throughout Bad Boy, but these are the musings of someone mourning the loss of a friend, recently passed. Bad Boy is a trial of sorts for Easy: Can he see a case to the end by himself, using only his own guile and strength? The answer, thankfully, is a resounding yes.
The title of Mosley's new novel refers to Brawly Brown, the son of Alva Torres and her ex-husband, Aldridge A. Brown. Alva is currently the lover of Easy's longtime pal John McKenzie, a onetime speakeasy operator who has moved into the construction business, putting up six homes on lots owned by an African-American real-estate concern. Brawly has gone missing, and Alva and John ask Easy to find the 23-year-old and "get him back home" before he lands in some trouble he can't escape. Brawly is a headstrong young man, John explains, who has gotten "in wit' a bad crowd and Alva's worried." Easy accepts this assignment in his particular fashion. He's not a private eye, in the true sense; formerly in "the hurting business," he's now a janitor at Sojourner Truth Junior High School, who helps friends as "favors." He tells John and Alva: "Invite me an' my kids and Bonnie over for dinner and I'll be paid in full." Easy is in tune with many contemporary fictional P.I.s, including Steve Hamilton's Alex McKnight, characters who are reluctant to be referred to as detectives or to accept payment for their investigative services. As Easy states in these pages, "Where I come from they don't have dark-skinned private detectives. If a man needs a helpin' hand he goes to someone who does it on the side. I'm that man ..."
Bad Boy is set in L.A.'s Watts district in 1964, at a time when race relations in the United States were especially strained. "There's blood boiling under the surface of Watts," observes one character in this yarn. The "bad crowd" that Brawly has fallen in with are members of the Urban Revolutionary Party, also known as the First Men. It's a party of young black men and women who fancy themselves freedom fighters, as they agitate for racial and economic equality, better schools for African-American children and representation by black politicians. Although one older black man dismisses the First Men as vigilantes, Easy isn't so convinced. He visits a storefront that serves as the group's meeting place and mingles with some of the "revolutionaries," such as party secretary Xavier Bodan, Tina Montes and Anton "Conrad" Breland. They sure don't appear to be troublemakers:
The young black men and women wore dark clothes, talked and listened, posed and watched. Their voices might have seemed angry to someone who didn't know the gruff bark of the American Negro's soul. Those men and women were far beyond anger though. They were expressing a desire for love and revenge and for something that didn't exist -- had never existed. That's why they were there. They were going to create freedom out of the sow's ear called America. They believed in the spirit of the Constitution and not the direction of the cash register.
Easy soon realizes, however, that Brawly's involvement with this crowd could bring him trouble, even if it's not directly instigated by the First Men. Not long into his investigation, Easy stumbles across Brawly's father, Aldridge Brown -- murdered -- at the home of Isolda Moore. Moore is Alva Torres' cousin, and she took care of Brawly after his mother was institutionalized. As it turns out, Moore herself is in hiding, spooked by Aldridge's death at her very doorstep. "And why didn't you go to the cops? If you didn't do it then there's no reason to be scared," Easy tells Isolda. To which she replies, "You ever been questioned by the cops?" Rawlins doesn't need to probe further. Having spent more than his fare allotment of time being grilled at police stations, he knows the risks and disrespect that face a black person in those circumstances. This exchange is a foreshadowing of the ominous role that L.A. cops will play in Bad Boy. It also leads eventually to Isolda suggesting to Easy that Brawly was behind his father's killing.
To Mosley's credit, he portrays Easy's endeavors to find Brawly realistically. It is time-consuming to locate someone who doesn't want to be found, and the trail is often indirect. Rawlins talks to many people, simply to gather the most basic information about Brawly. Many of those he comes in contact with are fascinating characters, including the colorful know-it-all, Sam Houston, who owns Hambones, a local (and surprisingly dangerous) soul food diner down the street from the First Men's storefront.
The real danger to Brawly Brown -- and to Easy -- comes from the police, in particular two LAPD officers, Detective Knorr and Colonel Lakeland. These aren't cops on the take committing crimes, but more ominously, they are cops who allow their ignorance and hatred to take deep root within them, as they fight for their own misguided sense of justice. Knorr enters this story when he arrives at Easy's house, hoping to persuade the janitor-gumshoe to turn informant. Knorr voices concern over the social and political self-determination at the heart of the First Men's philosophy:
The Negroes are getting anxious for some changes, he said. They want to end de facto segregation. They want better jobs. They want to be treated like war heroes after coming home from World War Two and Korea. Some even question going into the army and fighting for their country.
The shabbily dressed Knorr leaves his card, but Easy would rather shoot the man than work for him. Only later does Rawlins realize he can manipulate the police to get the information he needs, without endangering the lives of those he sees as innocents, especially Xavier Bodan and Tina Montes. Proving that he has the stuff of a decent sleuth, Easy does locate Brawly at one point, hiding out in the apartment of his girlfriend, Clarissa, but after telling Brawly that his father was dead, the young man storms off. Easy won't encounter him again till the end of this novel. Meanwhile, Easy dodges killers, connects a black activist's demise to a weapons cache and pieces together a plot designed by Colonel Lakeland to trap Brawly and his fellow First Men. Intervening in an ingenious way, and one that would never have happened had the violent Mouse still been alive, Easy barely saves Brawly's bacon, as others die.
As this tale progresses, it's hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad. The police are manipulative in bringing down imagined evils. Corrupt men inside the Urban Revolutionary Party seek monetary gain above social justice. Isolda Moore is found to have betrayed Brawly as much as she helped him, and in his naïveté Brawly never stops to consider that his actions are partly to blame for the racial strains at the heart of Bad Boy. There are heavy doses of blame all around.
But what comes through for the reader is the importance of love and support, like that shared between John and Alva and Brawly, or between Easy, his children and Bonnie. In the end, Easy survives the treachery and deceit that lie just beneath the surface of Watts, and he does it on his own, without help from Mouse. Bad Boy Brawly Brown -- the latest installment in a series that began with Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) -- gives the reader new insight into Easy Rawlins. At 44 years of age, he is suffering growing pains and the loss of a dear friend, but Easy is finally learning to tame his violent urges and appreciate the importance of family. As Los Angeles changes in ways that would have been mostly foreign to Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer, Easy is finding his place there. At last. Where he goes next should be well worth watching. | August 2002
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.