Sunday, December 31, 2017

Review of A Red Death by Walter Mosley (W.W. Norton, 1991)

1953, Los Angeles. Easy Rawlins has invested his ill-gotten gains from a murderous adventure a few years previously into real estate. Working as a janitor at the buildings he owns, he hides his assets behind a paperwork screen, leaving his associate, Mofass, to front managing the properties. Now the IRS are chasing him for undisclosed income, seeking to press federal charges. Adding to his woes is the suspicious death of one of his tenants and the arrival of EttaMae and her child, on-the-run from Easy’s villainous best friend, Mouse. Salvation seems to arrive in the form of the FBI, who offer Easy a chance to skip the tax charges if he helps them investigate a group of communists connected to a local church with activities linked to Champion Aircraft. The IRS are not happy and continue to make threats, the cops have him in the frame for the tenant’s death, and he’s in love with EttaMae but knows Mouse will kill him if he tries to steal her away.  And that’s just the start of his problems.

A Red Death is the second book in the Easy Rawlins series set in post-war Los Angeles. Easy has a habit of finding trouble and acting detective. In this outing he’s infiltrating a communist cell for the FBI in order to avoid a federal charge for tax evasion. When people connected to both his IRS charge and his FBI case start dying, it seems he’s swapped going to jail for non-payment of tax to going for murder. To add to his woes his personal life is a mess, starting an affair with EttaMae, the love of his life and partner of his best friend. The strength of the tale is its portrayal of the African-American experience in post-war America (both the seamier, darker underbelly and respectable business and church communities) and every-day and institutional racism, the sense of place, and the character of Easy Rawlins. Easy is a complex man in which good and evil battle internally and he’s often the sinner using casual lies, deception, robbery and violence to make headway; while he has a moral compass of sorts helping people where he can, ultimately he prioritises protecting himself. Which is perhaps no surprise given the social circumstances of the poor, working class community he’s operating in, which is a dog-eat-dog world. Where the tale struggles a little is with regards to the plot, which felt a little to tangled with a number of subplots and dozens of characters being threaded together – a death in one of the apartments Easy owns; a IRS case against Easy; a FBI case into a communist cell; an extortion racket in a church; EttaMae and Mouse arriving in the city – each with its own sub-plots and twists. There’s plenty going on – scheming, violence, extortion, murder, sex - leaving Easy dazed and confused throughout much of the story. And so, to a degree, is the reader. Eventually it all comes together with a well disguised twist. Overall, an interesting and entertaining story that might have benefitted from less is more.

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