Easy does it like no white detective can

He is brave only because `trouble is all he's got, so that's what he works with'
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The Independent Online
A black man is bringing new meaning to the white notion of "noir". Walter Mosley's murder mysteries have introduced a new character to the coterie of private investigators to be found in the 20th-century thriller: Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, VI Wa rshawski - please put your hands together for Easy Rawlins.

Once upon a time the decorum of the English murder mystery made it more mystery than murder. But Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler changed all that. Their books put true death into life and made the gloom of the Pacific coast's sun-blessed cities the landscape of the modern morality tale.

It was cinema that sensualised the murder mystery and created film noir as a genre, the great movie form of the Forties. But film noir never really survived the arrival of technicolour in the cinema; all that bright light was no good to the necessarily twilight world of film noir, whose imprimatur had been the association between dark and danger.

Like the black and white movie musicals of the Thirties, film noir was a white world. Black people were neither victims nor culprits; if they were there at all, they were bystanders, bellboys, cooks and janitors. Now Mosley has challenged contemporary

stereotypes of black men and a white genre. His first murder story, Devil in a Blue Dress, is being made into a movie by Jesse Beaton, who produced the brilliantly dangerous One False Move.

His fourth murder mystery, Black Betty, just published in Britain, reinterprets the Sixties through the filter not of black power, but black fear.

Mosley's father was a janitor. His hometown was the Los Angeles of film noir that became Watts and then South Central, seedy Santa Monica and deadbeat Venice Beach - before it became bright and beautiful again.

The black people of the Forties who shined shoes, collected garbage, built cars and aeroplanes, cooked and sang are his people.Mosley's investigator, Easy Rawlins, is infused with his own father's life story. He loves his character. He loved his father. He often talks about the one great certainty in his life - that he always knew he was loved by his father.

Mosley is an affable, gentle man with a certain laughing lightness of being - a black man whose life with a black father and a white, Jewish mother mirrors the multiple identities that his home town, LA, finds unbearable.

His beloved main man, Easy, fits no familiar form of black or white masculinity, and yet he is nothing if not a man. Nor does he fit the template of film noir man: the itinerant investigator, vaguely homeless, hard-drinking and hard-boiled, with no priorcommitments, no neighbourhood, no children, whose relatives are distant and wives are ex, whose loyalties are sustained by favours, not love.

The genre wrestles with seekers after truth whose masculinity is endlessly under threat, who are hurt, shot, sad, lonely and yet ultimately triumphant.

Easy, by contrast, is a reluctant inquirer: he starts looking into things for money when he loses his job in an aircraft factory. His violence is always frightened, mediated by his memory of the Second World War.

But his violence also has another genesis. Like he says in Black Betty, "Poor men are always ready to die. We always expect that there's somebody out there who wants to kill us. That's why I never questioned that a white man would pull out his gun when he saw a Negro coming. That's just the way it is in America."

Easy is enlisted to sort things out not so much because he is brave, but because he belongs; he is a neighbourhood man, he has networks, roots, a history. Unlike Sam Spade or even the forensic feminists such as VI Warshawski or Kate Dellaware, his audac

i ty comes not from alienation, but his connection to his community. He is brave only because "trouble is all he's got, so that's what he has to work with".

Unprecedentedly in this genre, Easy is a man who notices children. Being a migrant, his memory never lets him forget the landmarks of his own childhood. And because he lives in his community, he ends up living with children, too.

Because Mosley's starting point for his Easy series is the Forties, he leaves the reader no escape from the recent relics of American apartheid. Easy's very visibility makes him secretive: he is always covering his tracks because white people won't just let him be. He never recovers from the impulse to be invisible. He refuses to reveal himself even with women, whose challenge to his addiction to secrecy exposes the wound where race and sex meet.

Mosley doesn't write like a new man. What he gives the reader instead is Easy's filter, his failures, his sympathies and his sense of shock at what men and women have to put up with.

That doesn't make Easy nice, it just makes him a man, a man who can ask questions but can't give any answers. Which makes a change.