Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

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Review of 'Bad Boy Brawly Brown', Walter Mosley, Serpent's Tail £12

Easy Rawlins is back! For fans of Walter Mosley's most famous character, this latest chapter in the series, written after a six-year break, is a real treat.

Beginning with 'Devil in a Blue Dress', the Easy Rawlins novels are brilliantly written and sensitive stories which combine noir crime fiction with social history. Mosley has created a character who one reviewer described as the black Philip Marlowe--showing a whole other side to Raymond Chandler's 1950s Los Angeles, but with much of the same wit and style. The entire series is also rich with insight into the social conditions experienced by black working class people in the period after the Second World War in the United States.

This latest book is no exception to the high standards Mosley has set himself. 'Bad Boy Brawly Brown' finds Easy in his forties, working as a school janitor and looking after his family. He has left behind his adventurous past, but is plagued by haunting dreams about the death of his best friend Mouse. When an old friend asks for help finding his stepson, it is those dreams which propel Easy into new danger. It is his memories of Mouse that give Easy the courage to keep going when the situation is perilous. Thus Mosley ensures that the relationship between the two men--so key to the earlier novels--continues, despite Mouse's physical absence.

It is now 1964, and tremors of earthquakes to come are being felt. Brawly Brown is a young man in trouble. A member of a radical black nationalist group infiltrated by a shadowy US security force, he becomes implicated in murder, and his life--like those of the rest of the group--is threatened. The growing civil rights movement and the escalation towards the US joining the war in Vietnam provide the background for the story, which is peopled with sharply observed characters, and told through sparkling dialogue and plenty of humour.

Mosley is currently writing a social history of the events of 11 September 2001, and there are parallels in this book with the current paranoia around terrorism. It is interesting that, without giving too much away, the state and government bear a heavy responsibility then and now.

This is crime fiction, but not as we know it. Easy Rawlins is no private detective, just a black man helping his friends--which in the US means coming up against racism and the state. Easy's tactics are born of oppression, and his experience comes from staying alive in a racist country still stamped with the legacy of slavery.

There are some truly beautiful passages in 'Brawly Brown'. My favourite is when one character describes the superficial way that history is taught at school, and how liberating learning and genuinely understanding the past can be. Easy comes away feeling that he didn't quite grasp the point, but feels sure that 'it was important to my life'.

Easy has returned with as much honesty and anger as before, but with more subtlety and complexity--a character maturing in a changing world. This book is a joy to read for anyone already impressed by Mosley's writing, and a compelling introduction to some of the best crime fiction around. It is hard not to be already impatient for the next instalment.