Black Betty

by Walter Mosely, Norton, 1994

Reviewed by Paul Lowinger

 

We are in the Black ghetto of l961 Los Angeles where race and class define the world of Easy Rawlins, a African American private detective who lives with two foster-children. He struggles to escape from a nightmare of money troubles, a broken marriage and his concern about his friend Mouse who has threatened to kill an unknown snitch, maybe Easy himself. His new case starts when Lynx, a white private eye offers him a paid assignment to find a missing women. He knew her as Black Betty, a very dark skinned sex symbol from his teens in Houston when men killed over her favors and she was a "great shark of a women."

His search for her is dangerous because she is the heir of her recently deceased rich white employer's estate since he was the father of her two children. Easy is beaten by a corrupt policeman, stabbed and bludgeoned by Betty and shot at by the murderer while Betty's half-brother and two adult children are killed by those in the white family who are threatened by her inheritance. Greed and racial prejudice in the white world explain the murders and brutality that follow Black Betty who was herself a victim of sexual exploitation by the dead employer.

Mosely speaks as a psychologist as we embrace the clues, deadends and rational decisions. Agitated characters and vivid dialogue accompany the moves back and forth in the ghetto, to the jail, a ranch and to Beverly Hills. We are suprised at the solution of the mystery with the the reappearance of Dickhead, a minor racist figure from the nearby desert as the killer who turns out to be a member of the benighted white clan where Betty had been a live-in maid for 25 years. This revelation isn't going to diminish your excitement in reading the book or seeing the movie with Denzel Washington as Easy when it's made.

The African-American and Hispanic inhabitants of Mosley's world have more emotional range and greater depth then the whites. Witness the complexity of Easy as philosopher, father, businessman and melancholic or Easy's Mexican-American foster-son, Jesus who is a track star, at first mute and later suddenly bilingual. Whites are often stick figures like Arthur, a withdrawn boy in the rich white family who is culpable in the murders. Dickhead, the murderer doesn't have any real cultural or individual dimensions to his 'evil behavior and his racism. The white detective, Lynx who offered the original job to Easy and fights the killer in the climax along with Easy seems less real then he should given Mosely's talents. We like Lynx but his mannerisms and metaphors fall short of our need for flesh and blood like some of the rich Black portrayals. Or maybe too much of this African-American story depends on white characters and locales.

Mysteries create their effect by words like Stephen King's Old Testament speech but Black Betty's language is the Texas Blues.