Rated | Alphabetical
Bad Boy Brawly Brown
Little, Brown, 2002
August 3, 2002
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
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.
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
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