Click here to return to the Shaking Through Home Page


  Shaking WWW


 Archive Home | Movies | Music | Books | Comics | Editorial


Book Archives: Most Recent | Highest Rated | Alphabetical

Big Easy

  Bad Boy Brawly Brown
Walter Mosley
Little, Brown, 2002
Rating: 4.1

Posted: August 3, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

"I can tell you when a man's about to go crazy or when a thug's really a coward or blowhard. I can glance around a room and tell you if you have to worry about gettin' robbed. All that I get from bein' poor and black in this country you so proud'a savin' from the Koreans and Vietnamese...What I do I do because it's a part of me. I studied in the streets and back alleys. What I know most cops would give their eyeteeth to understand."

Thus does revered novelist Walter Mosley, in a nutshell, outline the foundation that girds his popular series of novels starring African-American troubleshooter Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins. Easy, by virtue of having grown up a black man in pre-Civil Rights America, brings an entirely different set of credentials to his role as a noir protagonist. Rawlins exists outside of the traditional detective set-up, as indeed he must; the very notion of a man of his background, living in his time, hanging his shingle as a licensed private detective, a la Philip Marlowe or Spenser or hundreds of other characters, is inconceivable; Rawlins comes by his tough-guy stance, his code of ethics and his habit of "doing favors" for friends -- i.e., investigating messes and/or helping people out of jams -- in a manner both grittier and more authentic than any Mike Hammer. As such, Rawlins provides Mosley with the opportunity to do far more than simply spin engaging and entertaining noir stories (although he does do just that); through Rawlins, Mosley examines and explores what it means to have been a black man in an America that is at once jarringly different from and startlingly similar to the one in which we live today.

In Bad Boy Brawly Brown, that world is 1964 Los Angeles, and Rawlins, still holding onto his job as chief custodian at a large public school, has settled down with an ersatz family, including a young "daughter" named Feather and a teen "son" named Jesus. Rawlins, still mourning the apparent death of his best friend Mouse, is asked by an old friend to check on his stepson, a hot-headed young man named Brawly Brown, who's left home and taken up with a strident black political organization known variously as the Urban Revolutionary Party and the First Men. Having long grown comfortable with his safe, domesticated life, Rawlins nonetheless feels something deep inside of himself stir at his friend's request, and easily slides into his old role, grateful for the chance to focus on something aside from his grief, for an engine to propel him through his grief. Almost immediately, he (almost literally) stumbles upon a murder, and all signs point to Brawly as the likely culprit.

In the interest of not giving away too much of Brown's deceptively straightforward plot, suffice it to say that Rawlins crosses paths with members of the First Men (obviously based on the Black Panther Party) as well as a secret police task force looking for a way to take the First Men down -- and, perhaps coincidentally, foil a robbery scheme in which the impressionable Brawly, Easy learns, has become entangled.

Like the best noir stories, Bad Boy Brawly Brown both adheres to its genre conventions and moves beyond them, vividly sketching a snapshot of a particular time and place in the context of a larger, more sweeping era. It's a testament to Mosley's skill as a writer that the complex, suspicious views Rawlins holds of the white men in his world are entirely believable, potentially unsettling as they may be to sensitive white readers, without ever descending into reverse racism.

But Mosley's socio-political subtext wouldn't work as effectively, if at all, if he weren't also a skilled noir craftsman capable of building a palpable sense of time and place (much as George Pelecanos does with Washington, D.C. or Dennis Lehane with the working-class suburbs of Boston). And make no mistake: Mosley has as smooth a hand at creating setting and atmosphere as Raymond Chandler in his prime. Check Easy's take on the tenement home of a femme fatale: "The room could have been a hotel flop in a frontier town in the Old West. The walls had never felt a coat of paint and a splinter from that rough floor could have sent you to the hospital with lockjaw."

Elsewhere, Easy relates: "I knew better to get involved with the business of the streets. And this was definitely street business. The white man in the green suit wasn't a cop or a revolutionary, nor was he a member of the Klan or a jealous husband. He was there to perform a sort of criminal bookkeeping that used rope instead of ledger paper and brass knuckles instead of an adding machine. I should have left, but I had another kind of business at hand. There was my friend John and his need. There was the fever burning like a funeral pyre over Mouse's death in my mind."

As to Mouse: Every noir protagonist needs his yang, the darker, more violent id by which he measures his own moral equanimity, and Mouse, even in his absence, remains as vivid and frightening a presence as ever; Robert B. Parker's Hawk, by whom his protagonist Spenser sets his own moral compass, pales in comparison. Whether via flashback or as a spectre of failure hanging over Easy's head, Mouse exerts a more visceral pull than any flesh-and-blood character in the book.

For all Mosley's strengths, Bad Boy Brawly Brown isn't as compelling a book as it strives to be; for a large stretch, Easy bounces from plot point to plot point like a hapless pawn. But a subplot involving Easy's handling of Jesus's desire to quit school -- a young life over which he's able to exert a more successful influence than with Brawly -- adds emotional texture and heft.

Still, if one looks patiently at Bad Boy Brawly Brown as but a chapter in a greater, unfolding tableau, it does offer its share of rewards. Not the least of which is a passage in which Easy recounts a prized memory of a father he barely knew:

"Even if you're right-handed and you get your right arm cut off...even that will turn out to be a good thing if you're a real man...because a real man will know that he has to overcome anything that gets in the way of him caring for his family. A real man will study the arm he has left. He will build its strength, learn how to use tools with it. He will make sure that he's a better man with one arm than other men are with two. And he'll make it so, no matter how hard he has to try. A real man can be beat only if you kill him. And with his dyin' breath he will try to overcome Death itself."

With that credo, Mosley lays out a noir rule to live by as powerful as Chandler's commandment, in "The Simple Art of Murder," that a protagonist be "the best man in his world, and good enough for any." And with his Easy Rawlins saga, of which Brawly Brown is but an interesting installment, he proves himself worthy to take his place alongside Chandler in the genre's pantheon of greats.

Related Links:

George P. Pelecanos: Hell to Pay

The Devil You Know
Fans of hard-boiled noir fiction should already own a copy of Devil in a Blue Dress, in which Rawlins is first introduced. Likewise, the 1994 film adaptation, directed by Carl Franklin and starring Denzel Washington as Rawlins and Don Cheadle as Mouse, is well worth renting.

Site design copyright 2001-2011 Shaking All original artwork, photography and text used on this site is the sole copyright of the respective creator(s)/author(s). Reprinting, reposting, or citing any of the original content appearing on this site without the written consent of Shaking is strictly forbidden.



 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

Archived Reviews

Most Recent

Highest Rated