A Red Death
Walter Mosley is one of the Hound's greatest living crime writers and his character Easy Rawlings one of the greatest crime fighters. He first appeared in the book of the year for 1990, Devil in a Blue Dress. This, A Red Death, is the second in a superb series.
It's 1953, a time when Red-baiting was official policy, and racial tensions boiled. Easy Rawlins is in deep trouble. A corrupt, racist IRS agent is breathing down his neck about some unpaid taxes. His only out: cut a deal with the FBI to infiltrate the First African Baptist Church and spy on a former World War II resistance fighter suspected of stealing some top secret government plans.
But the IRS isn't Easy's only problem. His life becomes even more complicated and dangerous when his old flame Etta Mae Harris shows up with her murderous husband, Easy's best friend, Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, hard on her heels. And then killings begin, and Easy finds himself playing the role of betrayed and betrayer - and the prime suspect.
This novel takes place in the Los Angeles of the early 1950s, a time of institutionalised racial segregation and paranoia about Communism. As the story begins, Rawlins is a former employee of an aircraft assembly plant. Now, he earns money by doing “favours for friends,” although he isn’t a professionally-licensed private investigator. Rawlins gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence, claiming that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars in back taxes and that if he doesn’t pay, he’ll be jailed. Just as Rawlins is mentally preparing himself for prison, he gets a way out from FBI Agent Darryl Craxton. Craxton tells Rawlins that the FBI is investigating former Polish Resistance fighter Chaim Wenzler as a possible Communist. If Rawlins will help the FBI bring Wenzler down, Craxton will work with Lawrence to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away. As Rawlins sees it, he’s caught in a trap and has no choice but to agree. So he makes a proverbial “deal with the devil” and begins to volunteer at the First African Baptist Church where Wenzler has been doing a lot of volunteer work.
The more he learns about Wenzler, the better Rawlins likes the man. In fact, the two become close friends. This makes it all the harder for Rawlins to continue working for the FBI. So does the fact that Rawlins doesn’t want to put the church or any of its members at risk. However, as he sees it, he has no choice. He does his best, though, to report as little as he can get away with to Craxton. Then, there’s a sudden death; one of the women who lives in an apartment building that Rawlins cleans has apparently committed suicide. After that, there are two more deaths, this time clearly murders. The LAPD targets Rawlins as the best suspect, since he has no real alibi for any of the murders. In fact, he’s present at both crime scenes. In order to clear his own name, Rawlins has to find the killer, who is now after him.
Meanwhile, Rawlins’ personal life becomes complex. His former love Etta Mae Harris has come to town with her son LeMarque, and wants to get together with Rawlins. The only problem is, Etta Mae’s ex-husband Raymond “Mouse” Alexander is just as eager to reunite with her and “Mouse” is an old friend of Rawlins’. He’s also dangerous and unpredictable. But Rawlins is still in love with Etta Mae and this time, he’s determined to keep her.
Several important elements tie this story together. One of them is the theme of who’s really the “good guy” and who’s really the “bad guy.” You could also call it a theme of ethics. In this novel, there really aren’t any “good” or “bad” people. What we see instead is a group of characters who live by what you could call situational ethics.
Throughout the novel, there are examples of racist language and assumptions and it’s clear that Whites and Blacks inhabit very different worlds. There are also warning signs of the smoldering rage and bitterness that led to the Watts riots some fifteen years after the events in this novel. The Black characters in the novel are not obsequious and they have their own ways of taking pride in their identity. Interestingly enough, too, many of the White characters in the novel are portrayed sympathetically and not as hate-filled racists.
The question of anti-Communism and just how far it should go is also raised. Rawlins has a lot of sympathy for the leftists he meets and that makes sense. He’s seen what a capitalist society does to certain groups, and he’s all for anything that helps the disenfranchised. On the other hand, he’s been raised in America, and taught to believe that Communism is evil. In Rawlins’ struggle to come to terms with his feelings about Communism and extremism, we see articulated a lot of the concerns that led to the end of McCarthyism in the U.S. And yet, it’s worth noting that Mosley doesn’t discuss Communism, McCarthyism or capitalism in a larger, philosophical way. Rather, we see what’s going on in the country through the eyes of the people who are living in this era.
The dialect and language is an important element in this novel, too. Mosley frequently uses African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), but it isn’t contrived, nor does it distract the reader. The character of Easy Rawlins is also an important element in this novel. Rawlins isn’t educated but he is philosophical. He’s out to protect his own skin, so to speak, but he’s also a friend to the disenfranchised and those who have nowhere else to turn. He’s got a core of compassion, mostly because he’s been there, so to speak. He’s a straightforward character who’s seen the very ugly side of life.
A Red Death has a lot of the elements of the “hardboiled” novel. It’s gritty, violent (although the violence is not gratuitous) and in the end, there really are no “winners.” The pace is fast and the action quick. The interesting complex character of Easy Rawlins and the larger questions the novel raises add to the story without distracting the reader from the mystery that Rawlins is trying to solve.
About Walter Mosley:
Walter Mosley (b. 1952 in LA) is the author of the bestselling mystery series featuring Easy Rawlins, and another featuring Fearless Jones, as well as numerous other works, from literary fiction and science fiction to a young adult novel and political monographs. His short fiction has been widely published, and his nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and the Nation, among other publications. Mosley is the winner of numerous awards, including an O. Henry Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, a Grammy, and PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He lives in New York City.