Friday, May 15, 2020

Review of Black Betty by Walter Mosley (1994, Pan)

Black Betty is the fifth book in the Easy Rawlins series and it’s a doozey. It’s now 1961. Easy has fallen on hard times; his property business has been hustled out from under him and he’s living in rented accommodation with his mute son and young daughter. To add to his woes his murderous friend, Mouse, has just been released from prison and wants revenge on the man who put him there, and he’s been asked by a white PI to find Black Betty, famed for twisting men’s necks and wrapping them around her fingers. Easy was in awe of Betty back in Houston when he was a kid, now she’s disappeared from a Beverley Hills mansion shortly after the owner died. Easy agrees to find the aging siren, but it quickly leads him into deadly trouble. Between trying to unravel mystery and stay alive, he also works to stop Mouse from murdering innocent men, and turn the tables on the woman who hustled him. It’s inevitable that some folk are going to die, but he’s determined it’s not going to be him. As well as a compelling mystery, with a couple of nice sub-plots, Mosley does an excellent job at charting the social relations and geography of being black in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. Kennedy might have been elected, but racism and the race divide is as deep as ever. Easy is smart and canny, he’s managed to build a property business, but he’s still struggling to get by and is often the victim of institutionalised abuse. Mosley nicely portrays these tensions and injustices through a hardboiled style with a tender underbelly, populating the book with a nice mix of conflicted characters. The subplots were perhaps wrapped up a little too quickly, but Black Betty is a wonderful, noir read.

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