“… all the Black men and women I knew who woke up angry and went to bed in the same state of mind. Life was a bruise for us back then, and today too. We examine every action for potential threats, insults, and cheats. And if you look hard enough, you will find what you’re looking for—whether it’s there or not.”
—From “Charcoal Joe,” 2016 by Walter Mosley.
As recently as 2014, Professor Kelly Campbell at San Bernardino State University wrote an article for Psychology Today titled “Black People have a right to be angry,” in which she discussed the de facto injustices and oppression that fuel Black rage. This anger remains a “given” in spite of the passage of the two-term presidency of the first Black chief executive, as the election of his successor, a long shot celebrity with no tangible political experience whose victory has merely rekindled the flames of a generation-old debate that shows no sign of closure is the foreseeable future.
This racially initiated rage permeates the landscape that Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlings inhabits. In this, the 14th installment of Walter Mosley’s moonlighting gumshoe, things are looking up for the reluctant hero. Fortune (and a financial windfall from the adventures covered in “Rose Gold,” the previous novel in the series) has allowed him to take his private eye sideline and turn it into a professional endeaveor, while racial and social progress, circa 1968, enables him to set up offices in the tranquil neighborhood around Pico and Robertson, boulevards along with a comfortable home nearby in upscale West Los Angeles.
“Ain’t another Negro in 30 blocks got a office around here, man,” his life long compadre, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander exclaims at the beginning of this tawdry tale.
Things are never completely serene for this Louisiana/Texas-bred Angeleno however, because his maniacal homeboy Mouse calls upon him to prove the innocence of yet another Black man unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A confirmed sociopath, Mouse has left a trail of bodies in his wake since his introduction in “Devil in a Blue Dress,” the first episode in the Easy Rawlings canon. In this go-round however, Mouse’s penchant for mayhem is put on the back burner and he is relegated to messenger status for the grisly proceedings to come.
Murder is the case here, to paraphrase Snoop Dogg’s 1994 hit song, and the defendant is one Poindexter-like Seymour Brathwaite, a doctoral candidate in physics at UCLA. Brathwaite is a nerdish academic, wearing coke-bottle thick glasses, who is incapable of harming a fly, let alone homicide. Yet his complexion is all the connection the police need to make a conviction, freeing them from the tedious task of actually finding the guilty party.
Like any detective yarn, “Charcoal Joe” is populated with memorable characters on both sides (and sometimes straddling) the perimeter of the law. These include a motley crew of shot callers, underworld scavengers, and above all the countless unfortunates, most of them minorities (and a few Whites) who find themselves ground under the wheels of the status quo.
Figuring prominently in this motley crew is Charcoal Joe, who gives the tome its title. An incarcerated criminal mastermind whose influence extends far beyond the confines of his minimum security detention center, Joe is the catalyst who has kicked off Easy’s latest grim escapade, and in true noir tradition, his motives are not entirely altruistic.
Former President Bill Clinton once proclaimed Walter Mosley his favorite writer, and since then the accolades and book sales have multiplied, including the 1995 motion picture based on“Devil in a Blue Dress,” which featured Denzel Washington as the home spun detective, and a star-making performance by Don Cheadle as the homicidally inclined Mouse.
These days, Mosley resides in Brooklyn, a continent away from his humble beginnings in Watts, resting on his laurels as Edgar Grand Master (awarded by the Mystery Writers of America) along with other honors. Distance has not dulled his familiarity with the geography or the nuances of his hometown, however. The series is more so a chronicle of the racial evolution of a city than just a collection of “whodunits.” Easy’s (and Mosley’s) genius lies in his ability to bridge the barriers separating Black and White, opulence and squalor, and recognizing the correlation of the human condition among the henchmen, misfits, power brokers, and especially the victims he encounters in his quest for justice in an inequitable world.
“Charcoal Joe” by Walter Mosley, 320 pages from Doubleday, sells for $26.95, and may be purchased online, or at Eso Won Books, 4327 Degnan Blvd. in Los Angeles.