Walter Mosley tells an engrossing story in his mystery novel Black Betty, a book about L.A. based Private Investigator Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins who is searching for childhood acquaintance Betty, a woman at the center of a far-reaching mystery complete with suspense and murder. Mosley demonstrates how much good world-building and character development can benefit an author.
Although this is the third novel in a series of Easy Rawlins books, the well-developed setting and characters make this novel a superb starting point for new readers. As a reader, you get plenty of opportunities to piece together the background of the protagonist Easy through segments of information woven extremely well into a well-written story, and Black Betty is exactly that; a well-written story. The characters are both distinct and reflective of the socio-economic climate that the book takes place in, the urban Los Angeles of the 1960’s. This brings us to perhaps the most important element of the novel. The social commentary is simply on point.
Mosley has a knack for giving the reader insightful social information through the thoughts and actions of his characters. In one particular scene, Easy is arrested and unlawfully detained by police officers. The horror and fear he exudes during his detainment are very telling in regards to what police interaction was like for Black men then, and what it is for Black men now. Easy was scared shitless. The jail scene wasn’t the only instance, though and the story was peppered with examples of racial inequality and discrimination. The discrimination and inequality were aspects of the world that Mosley built.
Characters like Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander and Elizabeth ‘Black Betty’ Eady represent different archetypes in the pantheon of Black street figures. The mouse was an ultra-violent entity of brute force who welcomed the idea of murdering others. Betty was the free and roaming seductress who couldn’t be refused. For a person like myself who grew up in an urban environment, these characters were reminiscent of figures I grew up around. The great characters were a result of the comprehensive world-building that Mosley implemented. It was as if I had stared through a window and saw my neighborhood of old. It was like watching the past on printed paper. The characters were both aspects of the world that Mosley created and the mediums through which he delivered much of the novel’s social commentary.
Mosley and his intent to write a great mystery and utilizing a Black narrative to do so reminded me of Charles Henry Rowell and his literary journal the Callaloo. Rowell was dedicated to giving Black writers a forum through which they could tell their stories and experiences. Mosely didn’t provide a forum for Black experiences but he did provide a story partially centered around Black experiences. Furthermore, the genre being mystery makes it easier to spread awareness of the Black experience. You pick up a novel about a mystery because, well, that’s your thing, and by the end of the novel you know more about oppression and social injustice than you did before. It’s wonderful really.