Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Historical mysteries offer the reader not just a crime fiction story, but also a look at another place and time and a chance to see how our society has changed or hasn’t. I’ll be spotlighting several historical mysteries as time goes by; let’s start by taking a closer look today at Walter Mosley’s A Red Death, the second in his Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins series.
This novel takes place in the Los Angeles of the early 1950’s, 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. Against the backdrop of this personal drama, Rawlins works to get to the truth about who’s behind the murders and the attempt to frame him for them.
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. For instance, when Rawlins finds out who the killer really is, he also finds out that someone’s been covering up for the killer. Rawlins knows that person, and it seems he’s been betrayed. However, it turns out that this character didn’t really have a choice but to cover up. Rawlins himself does several things that he considers make him as bad as anyone else in the story. In fact, trying to figure out who can and can’t be trusted is an important part of this story. Here’s just a snippet of Rawlins’ perspective to give a sense of the larger “right vs wrong” issues in this novel:
“I’m not a meek man and I will fight for what I believe is right, regardless of the odds. If I’d felt it was right for me to love Etta, then I wouldn’t have cared about what Mouse might do; at least I would have been at peace with myself. But Mouse was my friend and he was in pain…It was the same with Chaim Wenzler. He might have been a communist but he was a friend to me. Craxton and Lawrence had me so worried about my money and my freedom that I became their slave. At least Mouse and Chaim acted from their natures. They were the innocent ones while I was the villain.”
So is the backdrop of the racism so prevalent in the early 1950’s in the U.S.. 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. For example, here’s an interesting conversation between Craxton, who’s White, and Rawlins, who’s Black:
“‘You just report to me. Say once a week. I’ll know how to read it. And when you’re through the IRS will let you alone.’
‘All that sounds good, but I need to know somethin’ first.’
‘Well, you talkin’ ’bout my own people with this conspiracy stuff. An’ if you want my opinion, all that is just some mistake. You know I live down there an’ I ain’t never heard that we some kinda communist conspiracy or whatever.’”
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. But what’s your view? Have you read A Red Death? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 14 February/Tuesday 15 February – The Man in the Queue – Josephine TeyMonday 21 February/Tuesday 22 February – Exit Music – Ian Rankin
Monday 28 February/Tuesday 1 March - The Cat Who Could Read Backwards - Lilian Jackson Braun