Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Blonde faith - Walter Mosley

This is the first Easy Rawlins novel I've read and Mosley says it is the last he will write. While I sorry there will be no more, it will be interesting to start at the beginning and see how Easy got to this point in his life.

Easy is an African-American and Walter Mosley himself is bi-racial. His father was an African-American school librarian and his wife white and Jewish. He is identified as an African-American author, something that plays a significant part in the Easy Rawlins stories.

Blonde Faith is the 11th Easy Rawlins novel and I wonder why it took me so long to discover Mosley. I'm fortunate that it was selected for a book discussion which prompted me to buy it. This is easily one of the best reads I've experienced. I put Mosley alongside classic detective writers such as Raymond Chandler. Like Chandler, his writing, his descriptions, are first rate. Also like Chandler, his books are set in L.A. and like Philip Marlowe, Rawlins is basically a good guy in a corrupt society who sometimes has to compromise himself to do the right thing. His descriptions are really vivid and, as far as I can tell, pretty accurate of post-war Los Angeles.

There are spoilers ahead though nothing that would keep someone from enjoying the book (my opinion but your mileage might vary). It also a longish discussion.

The first Easy Rawlins novel is Devil in a Blue Dress. It is set in 1948 and Rawlins is 28 and a combat veternan of WWII. In Blonde Faith, it is 1967, 2 years after the Watts riots. Rawlins is now middle-aged, 47, with two adopted children, one a grown man married with a child, and an 11 year old girl, Feather.

His state of mind - lethargy, weariness - is set from the first page. In the previous book, Cinnamon Kiss, Rawlins kicked the love of his life, Bonnie, out of the house after she slept with another man. The fact that it was in the course of getting his daughter life-saving medical treatment at a Swiss clinic didn't matter.

Where I came from -- fifth Ward, Houston, Texas -- another man sleeping with your woman was more than reason enough for justifiable double homicide.
Rawlins wants her back, misses her terribly, knows he should call her but can't. He can't escape thinking about her.

The introductory case, rescuing a 16 yr. old from a pimp, is covered in only 6 pages but in those pages you get a feel for the the man Rawlins, his character, as well as the shadow (the absence of Bonnie) that has settled over his soul.

He see that he is capable of extreme violence including murder - I was ready to kill him [Porky the pimp]. I wanted to kill him.

Before Rawlins takes the girl, Chevette, back to her father, Rawlins inserts himself into their relationship. Easy works to make the father understand that he had to change his attitude about his daughter. This is an interesting window into Rawlins' character. It could be coming from him being a father himself or it could be who he is or both.

Without having read the previous books (any references to previous books come from Wikipedia and other reviews), my sense is that Rawlins doesn't like people being used and exploited, particularly children. While Easy counts a career criminal and stone cold killer (Raymond "Mouse" Alexander) as one of his closest friends, the pimp is outside acceptable society.

When he gets home the main story with several interwoven plot lines begins.

Easter Dawn, the adopted Vietnamese daughter of Christmas Black, an African-American ex-special forces major, is at his house, having been dropped off by Black with no explanation. Black makes his appearance in the previous book. Black was responsible for wiping out the village where Easter's parents were killed. I figure the name is symbolic.

Easter tells Rawlins that a blond lady was with her father (the title character, Faith Morel).

At this point we get several story lines going:
  • Where is Black? What kind of danger could he be in that he needed to get his daughter to safety?
  • Rawlins calls Mouse who is a friend of Christmas. Mouse's whereabouts are unknown and the police are after him for the murder of Pericles Tarr. Where is Mouse? Did he kill Tarr? If he didn't, where is Tarr? Etta, Mouse's girl friend, hires Easy to find Mouse before the police kill him.
Rawlins begins his parallel investigation - looking for Black and for Mouse/Pericles. Along the way he finds that several Army MPs (supposedly) are looking for Black and he finds the blond woman who was with Christmas, Faith Morel. Faith is an ex nun, now married to someone in the military, who convinced Black to adopt Easter. Black massacred 17 civilians, Easter's parents among them.

His approach to his investigations is very well done though I have a minor quibble. In 1967, before the Internet, could he really get the current status of military personnel from the public library even if it is a government depository. The information is needed to advance the story so I put that aside. Besides, I thought the librarian's willingness to take money under the table to do research an interesting twist. Is it corruption or just the way business in done in Easy's world?

So, Blonde Faith is a first rate detective story. Is that all?

Of the book, the leader of the discussion said
I thought the tone and topics were spot-on. I'm usually more interested in the thoughts and feelings of the PI (and I guess I like my PI's to be a little vulnerable and reticent about things) than in the "mystery" and its solution.
Bookslut wrote
Blonde Faith's plot is stellar as usual but it is the substance of of Mosley's language that never fails to move me. While Easy is rarely beaten, he understands to his very core the losses of life, big and small, and never fails to clench a fist or grit his teeth at the shocking injustices of life on the streets.
I gather from other reviews that this is a different Easy - he is experiencing middle-age regret, he is heavy hearted, more contemplative even for someone normally philosophical. Possibly suicidal. Resumes drinking. I also gather there there is often a high body count and lots of sex but not so much here.

What pulled me in was the way Mosley is able to weave social commentary and race into the story without being heavy handed about it. It is an emotional experience.

The way Mosley is able to have Rawlins express his feelings and the observations he makes along the way are exceptionally well done.

When confronting a redneck
Somewhere inside the machinery of my mind I found the will and the recklessness to kill the man who had commandeered my people's reformation of his language to threaten me.
When meeting a man who might have information
Thomas Hight was the quintessential white man ...I felt gratitude toward him while at the same time feeling that he was everything that stood in the way of my freedom, my manhood, and my people's ultimate deliverance. If these conflicting sentiments were meteorological, they would have conjured a tornado in that small apartment. Added to my already ambivalent feelings was the deep desire in me to respect and admire this man., not because of who Thomas Hight was or what he'd done but because he was the hero of all the movies, books, TV shows, newspapers, classes, and elections I had witnessed in my forty-seven hears. I had been conditioned to esteem this man and I hated that fact.... I owed him respect and admiration. It was a bitter debt.
Mosley includes two other interesting white characters. There is Peter Rhone who lost the love of his life in the Watts riots, gave up on the white race, and became the personal manservant to Mouse's girlfriend. Others are men Easy helped in the past - Hans Green, restaurant owner

I'm a white man, he said, an Aryan. I golf, belong to a men's club. My parents came to America in order to be free and to share in democracy, but in ten minutes with you and I've had arguments with four people about their bigotry. If that's what I face in ten minutes, what must life be like for you twenty-four hours a day.

Ten years ago I didn't have it so bad, I said. "Things have gotten worse?" In a way. Ten years ago you wouldn't have been able to seat me. Ten years ago I wouldn't have been in this neighborhood. Slavery and what came after are deep wounds, Hans. Any, you know, healing hurts like hell."
Are Rhone and Green extremes?

Rawlins doesn't have formal education but he is well read, intelligent, and deeply philosophical. It is interesting to see how Mosley adjusts Rawlins speech depending on who he is talking to. Talikng to Hans he is one person. Talking to other African -Americans on the street he is someone else. This isn't an unusual technique, I suppose, but I haven't read a book that used it in a while nor with the skill Mosley Mosley uses in his dialog.

Mosley is an important author in the field of crime fiction (and writing in general, I'd say) and I recommend Blonde Faith without reservations.