Watts Going On

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Review of 'Little Scarlet', Walter Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson £12.99

On 11 August 1965 a police traffic stop in the Watts area of Los Angeles, an largely black-populated area, provided the spark that ignited rioting which lasted for six days, leaving 34 dead, more than 1,000 injured, almost 4,000 arrested and hundreds of buildings destroyed. The riots were an explosion of raw anger against the racism and brutality of the police, and the continued denial of basic civil rights to black people. Little Scarlet, Walter Mosley's most recent Easy Rawlins novel, is set in Los Angeles while the embers of the Watts riots are still burning.

In the aftermath the police turn up on Easy Rawlins' doorstep asking for his help. A white man was dragged from his car at the height of the riot and escaped into a nearby apartment building. Soon afterwards a young woman, Little Scarlet, is found dead in the same building. The fleeing white man is the obvious suspect and the police fear that rioting could start all over again if word gets out that a white man has murdered a black woman in the area. The police also know that they are not welcome in the area and their presence is also just as likely to cause further riots. They ask Easy to find out what happened and he agrees, as he wants to get justice for the dead woman.

As he investigates the murder, Easy finds that the city is changing as it emerges from the ashes. The riot has been a catalyst for that change, jolting people from their complacency and forcing some white people to acknowledge and want to change the racism and injustice that were the everyday experience of black people at that time. When the policeman detailed to work with Easy offers to shake his hand, Easy is shocked and surprised. When a young white receptionist from Memphis offers to help Easy, he remarks that 'where she came from, a white woman didn't address a black man directly... and though I couldn't explain how, I knew that the riots had broken down the barriers between us.' Black people, including Easy himself, are more confident, more willing to stand up to the authorities. Easy's friend Jackson Blue is able to get a job in the computer department of a major corporation, albeit by creative means. Other friends, Mouse and Jewelle, find new business opportunities opening up.

Easy Rawlins has not taken part in the rioting but his sympathies are with those who have. He has suffered the same indignities and racism throughout his life as they have and recognises that something had to give. In the opening scene he describes himself as 'holding myself in check while South Los Angeles went up in the flames of a race riot'. Even when he thinks the anger of the rioters is misdirected, against the school Easy sometimes works at or against some of the storeowners, he understands why it happened. He knows the racism and the fear that have been bottled up to exploding point and explains, 'Almost every black man, woman and child you meet feels that anger. But they never let on, so you've never known. This riot was sayin' it out loud for the first time. That's all. Now it's said and nothing will ever be the same again.'

This book is certainly a rattling detective story. It has Mosley's usual cast of great characters and a plot that makes you read through the night. What lingers afterwards though, and makes this one of his best novels, is Mosley's hatred of injustice and a state that breeds racism, hatred and fear, and his sense that ordinary people are capable of great kindness and of building a better world.