Book: Little Scarlet

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Little Scarlet: An Easy Rawlins Mystery

Author: Walter Mosley
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Publisher: Little, Brown

Easy Rawlins returns to solve a mystery set amid the flames of the hottest summer L.A. has ever seen.

Just after devastating riots tear through Los Angeles in 1965—when anger is high and fear still smolders everywhere—the police turn up at Easy Rawlins’s doorstep. He expects the worst, as usual. But they’ve come to ask for his help.

A man was wrenched from his car by a mob at the riots’ peak and escaped into a nearby apartment building. Soon afterward, a redheaded woman known as Little Scarlet was found dead in that building—and the fleeing man is the obvious suspect. But the man has vanished.

The police fear that their presence in certain neighborhoods could spark a new inferno, so they ask Easy Rawlins to see what he can discover. The vanished man is the key, but he is only the beginning. Easy enlists the help of his longtime friend Mouse to break through the shroud. And what Easy finds is a killer whose rage, like that which burned in the city for weeks, is intrinsically woven around deep-set passions—feelings echoed within Easy himself.

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Los Angeles, 1965, right after the Watts Riots, six summer days of racial violence—burning, looting, and killing—that followed the routine arrest of a black motorist for drunken driving. Although custodian and unlicensed PI Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins stayed safely inside during the turmoil, as an African-American male he understands all too well what it was about. “It’s hot and people are mad,” he explains in Walter Mosley’s Little Scarlet. “They’ve been mad since they were babies.” Even with the rioting finally cooled, police remain on edge. So when a mid-30s, redheaded black woman named Nola Payne—aka “Little Scarlet”—turns up dead in her apartment, strangled and shot and showing signs of recent sexual contact, the cops are reluctant to storm L.A.’s minority community, looking for her murderer, especially since the culprit may well be an injured white man Payne had sheltered, and who’s now disappeared. Instead, they ask Easy to see what he can find out about this crime.

The case forces Rawlins to address the ethnic tribulations of 1960s America, in microcosm, and his own discomfort with discrimination, in particular.

I spent my whole early life at the back of buses and in the segregated balconies at theaters. I had been arrested for walking in the wrong part of town and threatened for looking a man in the eye. And when I went to war to fight for freedom, I found myself in a segregated army, treated with less respect than they treated German POWs. I had seen people who looked like me jeered on TV and in the movies. I had had enough and I wasn’t about to turn back, even though I wanted to.

But Easy can’t tackle this investigation alone; assisting him are the casually homicidal Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, as well as a dogged white detective and a fetching younger woman, who threatens to overturn the settled life Easy has been working toward all these years. Nor can Rawlins wrap the case up easily. Harassed and attacked for his inquiries, he eventually connects Payne’s slaying to a homeless man, allegedly responsible for killing as many as 21 black women, all of whom had the bad judgment to hook up with white men.

Little Scarlet, the eighth Rawlins novel (after Bad Boy Brawly Brown), is unusual for Mosley, because it focuses as much on the credible mechanics of crime-solving as it does on the exposition of character and the exploration of L.A.’s mid-20th-century black culture. Combined with the author’s vigorous prose and prowess with dialogue, Easy’s promotion to serious sleuth promises great things for what was already a standout series. —J. Kingston Pierce

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