In a sense, we know what to expect. Walter Mosley is about as prolific as Stephen King and this being the 14th Easy Rawlins mystery, we have an idea, don’t we, of what we’ll get. Easy Rawlins is a detective, for one thing, so we’ll know that there will be a case he has to investigate. Easy Rawlins is a black man in a very racist America so we know he’ll be confronted by that. Easy Rawlins has a family, of sorts, an adopted daughter, a girlfriend, an adopted son (who we left making his way to Alaska in the last book, Rose Gold). We also know that over the course of the last twenty plus years (Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins outing, Devil in a Blue Dress, was published in 1995) Easy Rawlins has built himself quite the network – and Mosley expects you to keep up, as he should, he ain’t writing for fools. By which we mean to say, Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels are complex and Charcoal Joe is no exception in that regard either.
This time around, Easy is hired by Mouse, his buddy and one hell of a scary dude, to help out a guy called Charcoal Joe, and Joe is “what you’d call a mastermind. He makes thing happen where no-one else sees possibilities.” He’s also somewhat dangerous himself, having saved Easy’s life (unbeknownst to Easy) when he delivered a couple of names into Mouse’s hands, two guys out to kill Easy – and so of course Mouse offed them as surely as he would finish all the food on his plate. The gist of the case is: Joe wants Easy to investigate a murder – two men found dead in a beach house – and exonerate the son of his friend, an up and coming young black man who is doing well for himself as a scientist and just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But nothing is ever easy for Easy and alongside this case, he discovers early on that Bonnie, the woman he was gearing up to propose to, is leaving him for another man (in a callback to Blonde Faith). He pays a visit to Mama Joe, the witch who he and Mouse first met in Gone Fishin’ (the fourth, but chronologically first Easy Rawlins novel) and learns she has some troubles of her own. She gives him a potion and that helps him see a few things more clearly as he does his best to work Charcoal Joe’s case.
Very quickly, though, and again as you might expect, the plot whips tighter than a wet twisted towel and whipcrack snaps just as smartly. Charcoal Joe has a lady on the outside, Jasmine Palmas-Hardy (and if you’ve never read Mosley and if Easy Rawlins didn’t tip you off, Mosley has as fine a way with names as Thomas Pynchon), and she’s a sort of fixer if you will, and the young scientist in the frame for the murder is her son. What else? We learn that Easy has set up a detective agency with two other men – Whisper Natly and Saul Lynx. We see Easy run across Fearless Jones – a character from another series of books that Mosley has written – and Easy and Fearless mostly double-team the events of Charcoal Joe, Fearless more than once coming to his rescue. As you’d expect, there are lies and half truths, there are heavies and gangsters, there are racist cops and suspicious diner staff, there are shady racetrack sorts and angry husbands, there are sexy French girls and naked hippies (the Easy Rawlins story has hit 1968 and Mosley is a keen cultural commentator), there is free love, there are drugs (although Easy hardly drinks and only smokes one cigarette a day now, for the most part) and there are murders and betrayals and heists and thrills and spills of various designations.
Now, if you’ve not followed Easy up to this point, it’s probably unlikely that you’ll dive in here – but I wanted to share something with you that happened as I read this. Charcoal Joe is a very, very good Easy Rawlins mystery and a very, very good Walter Mosley novel. As I read this book, it occurred to me that I haven’t kept up on the Fearless Jones series and haven’t dabbled at all with his Leonard McGill series (both of which are five books in now) – but I have read all of the Easy Rawlins books and reading Charcoal Joe I thought, you know, I could happily start at the start and read all of these books again – and I figure I will do that at some point. They are that good and Mosley is that good as a writer too. We all know that there are a lot of crime books on the shelves and that many of them are hardly worth the paper they are printed on but Mosley, for this reader, is right up there with Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy as one of the kings of crime fiction and Easy Rawlins a character to rival any detective throughout history.
Any Cop?: Another star turn from Mosley and Easy Rawlins and the kind of book that could demand you plough through the entire back catalogue at speed.