Saturday, October 1, 2016

Review of "Charcoal Joe" by Walter Mosley

As this 14th book in the series opens Easy Rawlins is riding pretty high. With a windfall from a previous case Easy has opened a private detective agency in Los Angeles with his two partners, Whisper and Saul. Easy's also about to propose to his girlfriend Bonnie. Things don't go that well with Bonnie but Easy - getting busy with a case - pushes that to the back of his mind.

Easy's new case comes via his lifelong friend Mouse Alexander, a stone cold killer who's always had Easy's back. It seems that a 22-year-old black post-doc with a Ph.D. in physics, Seymour Braithwaite, has been arrested for murdering two white men - Peter Boughman and Ducky. Mouse explains that criminal mastermind (and very scary guy) Charcoal Joe, currently in prison, is interested in Seymour's welfare. Charcoal Joe wants Easy to clear the boy's name. Of course Easy says yes and soon realizes that, unless he finds out who really killed Peter and Ducky, the authorities will pin the crimes on Seymour.

Easy has to be careful while conducting his investigations - and living life in general - because he's a black man in 1968 Los Angeles. When Easy goes to a diner for a bite to eat, the waitress - for no good reason - calls the cops. When Easy encounters police, either at a traffic stop or while doing his job, the cops are hostile and condescending....making it clear they'd as soon arrest him/beat him up/shoot him as look at him. In some ways this is reminiscent of things happening in the country today.

As Easy tries to prove Seymour's innocence he comes across a wide array of colorful characters including Seymour's foster mother and her cantankerous estranged husband; various gangsters and criminals; a pretty jewelry store clerk; a racist prison guard; a sexy female prison administrator and an obnoxious male prison administrator; a prostitute; Fearless Jones - Easy's good friend who never lost a fight; and more. Walter Mosley's descriptions of these characters are exceptionally vivid (i.e. skin color, hairstyle, clothing, behavior) and Easy's interactions with them make up a substantial part of the story.

Easy soon discovers that millions of dollars in cash and diamonds are at the heart of the murders, and some people will stop at nothing to get them. Thus Easy almost gets killed, lots of people die, and bad guys are running around all over the place. For me the abundance of criminals - and their complicated hijinks - were too confusing. I didn't understand what was going on...and some of what I did understand was contrived and unlikely (i.e. a mysterious journal in a foreign language; Feynman's Physics Lectures). This would be the kiss of death for most mysteries but this book is as much about the characters as the it gets a (small) pass.

Easy himself is a compelling guy: smart and well-spoken; a wonderful dad who dotes on his school-age daughter Feather; a decent cook; a man whose friends would (literally) kill for him; a fellow who's nice-looking, well-dressed and irresistible to women; etc. (Easy's effect on women bothers me. It's what I call 'male fantasy writing' - when almost every woman the protagonist meets whips off her clothes and has sex with him...or at least snuggles up and kisses him. LOL)

I always enjoy Easy Rawlins books, though this isn't among the best I've read. Still, the story is engaging and I'd recommend the book to mystery readers, especially fans of the series.

Rating: 3 stars

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