Walter Mosley left Easy Rawlins for dead at the end of his last novel, but Little Green opens with Easy coming back from the dead, reviving from a coma and into the land of the living. It was Mouse who, prompted by the sixth sense of Mama Jo's juju, found and saved Easy, and now Mouse, the deadly Raymond Alexander, has something he wants Easy to do for him in return, namely locate a young boy named Evander who's gone missing on Sunset Strip, and whose mother is worried sick. But Timbale, the mother, despises Mouse, and would neither ask for nor accept his help. So Easy stumbles out of the sick bed and back into the land of the living, fuelled by Mama Jo's gator juice, a brew that appears to turn him into something like a super hero, at least for brief periods of time.
That's some set up, and this novel serves to remind readers like me, who may have drifted away from Mosley's work, feeling it had lost some of the urgency which made it so effective when Easy first came on the scene, of exactly how good Mosley can be when he is on. It's 1967, and Easy is in his mid-40s. Los Angeles has been hit by the counter-culture; Evander disappeared on a trip, taken almost on a dare, to see the hippies on Sunset Strip. This heralds a new age, of sorts, new attitudes whose depth remains to be challenged. Because this is also Los Angeles still feeling the aftermath of the Watts riots,and it here where Mosley is so good, because there are two different perspectives to the Sixties, black and white, and through Easy we are reminded of how they differ.
In that sense, Mosley often reminds me most of the documentary film maker Ken Burns, whose major projects, on the Civil War, on baseball, and on jazz, have all actually been about the centrality of race in the American experience, and that is Mosley's theme as well. The mystery at the heart of his first novel, Devil In A Blue Dress, whose backstory comes up in Little Green, was one of racial identity, and he revisits that powerfully here. What Easy has always done, for the reader, is to mix the values American society purports to cherish, especially those of family and education, and which Easy shares, with the reality of how hard it is to actually draw the benefits of such values in a racist society. Surviving in Easy's America means being part Easy and part Mouse, and even in the Sixties, with some attitudes changing, there are many more that are not. Indeed, you might argue that Mosley's best novels have all been concerned with sociological history, and in that sense he's probably closer to Ross MacDonald than any of the other great LA crime writers.
I like the way Mosley has taken his characters through post-war LA, like a much less apocalyptic Ellroy, or like Max Allen Collins' Nate Heller without the big events of history. In fact, Heller and Easy would make an interesting partnership around, say, the RFK assassination or the Hearst kidnapping and the SLA. Just a thought. He's also aware of his own place in detective fiction, at least by proxy. There's an interesting exposition on the importance of Chester Himes,and his being more important than Ralph Ellison, for the precise reason that he was more productive; Invisible Man, perhaps unfairly, gets seen as the book white literature accepted partly because it was a 'one-off'. You can't help but think Mosley is talking about himself when he talks about Himes.
Anyway, Evander's been given LSD by a friendly hippie, and he's become a literally unknowing accomplice to the rip-off of some big time drug dealers—the drug being pot in this case, underscoring the dark side beneath the groovy vibe of the Strip. As Easy returns to life, bit by bit with the help of Mama Jo's gator blood, he reassembles his family, and he even reunites with Bonnie, the love he thought lost forever. Which doesn't prevent his getting his first experience of the free love era. Free love would not faze a black man in Los Angeles, not as much as the lack of racial barrier. But barriers are starting to fall, which is something Mosley approaches with commendable caution. For Easy, it's simply good to have been 'recalled to life', as the phrase once went.
Little Green by Walter Mosley
Weidenfeld & Nicholson/Orion £18.99 ISBN 9780297870067
Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)