Like most people, my first encounter with the character of detective Easy Rawlins was in the movie adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress. I was intrigued enough to watch the film a few times, but I hadn't gotten around to reading one of the Easy Rawlins mysteries until I recently picked up a copy of A Red Death from the local library to read on my latest business trip.
The appeal of Ezekiel Rawlins is in his moral ambiguity. Mystery writers too often give us protagonists who remain as pure as unrefined cake flour. Sure, they may drink too much, eat unhealthy foods and speak with coarse language, but the closest they ever get to actually doing wrong is indifference. These characters appeal to the reader's inner sense of righteous indignation at -bad people-.
Easy isn't that easy. He's done wrong before, and he's willing to do it again if necessary. Easy will even consider committing murder, and not just for the sake of high-minded principles, but in order to avoid the consequences of his own mistakes. Easy Rawlins appeals to the complex moral conflicts within us and doesn't fool us into believing that simple solutions to those conflicts exist.
A Repeated Formula
A Red Death takes Easy Rawlins into another spin of the moral compass, but in many ways his latest trip seems much like his others. Like other mystery writers, Walter Moseley uses a formula for success. Just like in Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy is forced into doing the dirty work of others as he stands accused of a murder he didn't commit, hauled off to jail and beaten around to near death. A white guy with a bad attitude compels him into investigating the goings on of a white-yet-not-pure-white person living among blacks. Easy has to call in his murderous best friend Mouse, yet fears that Mouse will go too far. Even the title of the book reflects a formula: previous titles include White Butterfly and of course Devil in a Blue Dress.
Nonetheless, Moseley pulls the formula into a form good enough to pull the reader through to the end of the book with few regrets. A Red Death works through the shadowy political corners of the 1950's -- labor, communism, the Marcus-Garvey-return-to-Africa movement and the unscrupulous embezzlement of religious leaders. Communism is regarded as neither a curse nor a blessing - a well-meaning but foreign influence in Easy's neighborhood.
Moseley's women are a bit flat, mostly occupying either sexual or maternal roles. Other characters are given a bit of depth, however, and Moseley isn't afraid to let friends turn into foes or foes into friends. It is disappointing that Easy Rawlins is allowed to dodge the central dilemma of the story, but he doesn't come clean by any stretch of the imagination.
A Red Death is a solid, but not great, addition to the mystery genre. I particularly recommend reading it over the holiday season, when everybody else is just a bit too holly jolly. Easy Rawlins is a great way to add a bit of grit to the turkey and stuffing.