Six Easy Pieces
by Walter Mosley
Published by Atria Books
288 pages, 2003
Nowhere Near Happy
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
Six Easy Pieces is a vibrant collection of Walter Mosley's short stories featuring Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, the senior head custodian of Los Angeles' Sojourner Truth Junior High School and a part-time investigator-without-a-license who "trades in favors." As we saw most recently in Mosley's outstanding Bad Boy Brawly Brown (2002), Easy answers the siren call for help from friends who can't expect the police to provide justice for black folks. The seven stories comprising this collection offer a primer both on the Rawlins character and Mosley's writing virtuosity, not the least of his talents being the way he conjures mood and constructs visceral characterizations. Six of these stories were published last year as lagniappes to Washington Square Press' paperback reissue editions of the first half-dozen Rawlins novels. But a seventh tale, "Amber Gate," is brand new.
Mosley develops several plot threads early on in this volume, which then snake their way through the stories, giving a continuum of depth and transformation to Easy that takes him further into the 1960s and beyond where we found him in Brawly Brown. One thread picks up right where Brawly Brown left off, with Easy still in the throes of despair at the death of his old rodent-faced crony, Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, who presumably died in A Little Yellow Dog (1996). Easy's search for definite proof of Mouse's demise forms a subplot to two of the stories, "Crimson Stain" and "Lavender." There are no missteps in this collection; rather, Mosley demonstrates a sureness of voice and a firm grasp of the dramatic, easily making this volume equal to such classic crime fiction short-story compilations as The Name Is Archer (1955), by Ross Macdonald, and Trouble Is My Business (1934), by Raymond Chandler.
In the opening yarn, "Smoke," Easy investigates a smoke bomb set off at Sojourner Truth. A building is burned down, and this violence to the school where he works puts Easy on the case. What seems to be a matter of arson turns into something larger, resulting in the unraveling of the secret life of principal Hiram Newgate. Tragedy and big changes at Sojourner Truth are the consequences. "Lavender," found later in the book, is one of its more potent offerings, mixing an inter-racial affair with a major bump in the road for Rawlins and his live-in lover, flight attendant Bonnie Shay. (The strain between Easy and Bonnie is another subplot that works its way into other stories here.) To get his mind off his souring relationship (he fears Bonnie is having an affair with an African prince), Easy helps out his old flame EttaMae Harris. EttaMae works for a rich white family, whose frisky and self-centered daughter has her sights set on Willy Longtree, a black musician who "don't have the sense to come in out the rain." Etta pities the boy. She sends Easy to locate Longtree and get him out of the girl's clutches. Instead, Easy finds himself in the midst of calculating and dangerous people, and needs EttaMae's assistance to avoid death at the hands of a psychopathic killer.
"Gator Green" is a tale of hot tempers, family betrayal and stolen cars. While trying to help his friend Saul Lynx -- a real, licensed, white private eye -- Easy goes undercover as a mechanic in an auto shop notorious for its shady dealings. He hopes to prove that Lynx's cousin-in-law, Ross Henry, is innocent of robbing the garage safe. In the same story, Easy finds his love for Bonnie tested by a married white woman, who has a crooked nose and a sex urge in overdrive, and seems unable to keep her hands off our hero. Easy proves that he's human, but that he also knows what's best for him, Bonnie and his two children, Jesus and Feather. In "Crimson Stain," the same can't be said for Cedric Boughman, a young man who falls crazy in love with a beautiful prostitute, Etheline Teaman. Easy has his own interest in Teaman -- he's heard that she encountered a man with gray eyes, which happen to be the same color as Mouse's. Easy discovers Teaman murdered, and his personal quest to find out whether Mouse is really gone has to be put on hold, while he tries to figure out if the distraught Boughman, or maybe another one of her lovers (minister Medgar Winters is a possibility), killed Teaman.
"Silver Lining" reacquaints us with another old friend from the Rawlins novels: small-time crook Jackson Blue. Blue is having an affair with Jewelle MacDonald, a real-estate whiz married to the much older Mofass, who is ravaged by emphysema. When Jewelle's half-sister, Misty, is kidnapped as part of an extortion plot by Clovis MacDonald, Jewelle's other and conniving sister, Blue calls on Easy for help. The janitor-sleuth finds himself in the middle of a severely and deadly dysfunctional family feud, and no one comes out of this sordid affair unscathed. In "Gray-Eyed Death," the question of whether Mouse is truly dead is answered -- he isn't. Just like that, he knocks at Easy's door one day and walks into the Rawlins home, as though he was never gone -- fashionably attired and jivin', as usual. Easy, understandably stunned, asks:
"Where the hell you been, Ray?"
Although he's mad at Rawlins for almost getting him killed, Mouse asks Easy to help his friend Domaque, the son of a healer, who is being framed for armed robbery and murder. The police are satisfied that Dom is guilty, and it's up to Easy to do some framing of his own in order to put them onto the right trail. It is good to see Mouse back, and his insight is like a beacon of light in the dark -- no matter if he is just a short temper away from committing murder. Nobody knows Easy better than Mouse, a fact that's reinforced in this volume's last story, "Amber Gate." The plot finds Easy being hired by a German shoemaker to prove that his Middle Eastern landlord and friend didn't murder a young, ambitious and sexually liberated black woman. During the case, Easy tells Mouse that he's happy with his life "just the way it is." But Mouse sets him straight:
"No, baby. That ain't true."
In "Amber Gate," as in several of the stories in this collection, justice is elusive. In this instance, the innocent party goes free, but so does the killer. This story also leaves an ambiguous resonance: Does Easy intend to become a more legitimate, full-time investigator? It seems we'll just have to wait for Mosley's next Rawlins novel. As Macdonald and Chandler did with their own, archetypal P.I.s, Walter Mosley has turned Easy Rawlins into a compelling gumshoe, surrounded him with large characters, and put him in an emotional and social context that shows why crime happens, and why it is sometimes inevitable. | March 2003
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.