Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Bad Boy Brawly Brown by Walter Mosley


(Originally published at BET Online. But I had a falling out with them and they removed all the reviews. So I'm returning them here.)

As someone who’s not entirely thrilled with Walter Mosley’s science fiction—and by that I mean that I really didn’t like “Blue Light”—I’m happy to report that the writer has taken us back to the world of his now legendary and iconic private eye Easy Rawlins in Bad Boy Brawly Brown. With his Rawlins titles always marked with the name of a color, Walter Mosley offers more than just readably exciting genre books: they reach the level of passionate social history and Great Art. Bad Boy is no exception. I couldn’t put it down. 

This new book takes us to the Los Angeles of 1964. It features, in no particular order: the rise of a group that sounds suspiciously like both the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, some surprising commentary on the value of a high school education in a white society, and some out and out premonitions about the fate of black leaders and the COINTELPRO (The CIA’s counterintelligence operations and do a google search if you’re curious.) operations. 

By the way, we know this is fiction written by a black man because Easy essentially closes down the LA headquarters of COINTELPRO after a vigorous letter writing campaign to the NAACP and local media. Good job Easy. If only you were real…
There is also the usual assortment of shady characters, police beatings, fistfights, gunshots, big scores, dead bodies and dark sexual secrets. There’s also the question of whether Easy’s equally legendary sidekick Mouse actually died in the last book “A Little Yellow Dog”. All of the aforementioned factors are tied into a complicated Raymond Chandler plot that I wasn’t even close to figuring out until the very end. But, to be honest, I enjoyed the journey so much the destination became moot.

 After all, Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books aren’t just detective novels. They are, in fact, social snapshots of a time, of a place and of a people. If you want to see a perspective of how working class black folk were living in 1964—and you’re too lazy to dig through the works of Manning Marable or John Hope Franklin—just read the Rawlins books and you’ll get a pretty good perspective of How It Was. The busy work of his genre motifs of fisticuffs, corrupt cops and black female molls is always seen through a historical prism. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement serve as the backdrops this time. (Where will Easy be during the Watts riots and the day Bobby Kennedy got shot…?) Yet it’s Mosley’s commentary about these ideas and movements, as seen through Easy’s jaded 44-year-old eyes, that’s just so interesting. For example, one character talks about how the cops plan to kill or discredit all the important black leaders. Easy makes the call that his adopted son Jesus would be better off being home taught than facing hostile instructors at the public school. 

There are also the usual Easyisms. Easy has a nice habit of falling into off the books Big Scores and then there’s this food thing. We learn that the collard greens have the scent of vinegar and bits of salt pork. The lasagna has a thick red sauce. Mosley really gives you the feel of a place with his eye for tastes, smells and textures. There’s also some great intelligence in the storytelling throughout. I thought it was a stroke of genius when we find that the smoker Rawlins huffs and heaves after just running two blocks. 

Final verdict: Bad Boy Brawly Brown is great storytelling combined with a social conscience. It’s a great read and just more proof that Walter Mosley just might be the best black male fiction writer alive today.  

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