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Review: 'Charcoal Joe'

History, racial tension set backdrop for noir novel

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By Laura Farmer, correspondent

We read crime fiction not so much for the crime, but for the detective. And Walter Mosley’s famous detective Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is one of the best: smooth and self-assured, a sharp dresser with an even sharper mind. Trouble may have his name “tattooed on the inside’a his eyelids,” but Easy “always got the right words …. Even if you don’t know a thing, you never say nuthin’ wrong.”

Mosley’s latest Easy Rawlins’ mystery, “Charcoal Joe,” has Rawlins sitting in a fine position: it’s May of 1968 in Los Angeles, and Rawlins has his own detective agency with two partners. He has children who love him, powerful connections, and an engagement ring in his pocket for his long-term girlfriend.

But before Easy can pop the question, a case presents itself. A young, black Ph.D. from Stanford has been arrested for the murder, and Charcoal Joe, a notorious figure hidden away in prison, wants Easy to prove his innocence.

Soon Easy discovers this case is about much more than one man’s freedom: there are millions of dollars in cash — and diamonds — at stake. But no one seems to know their whereabouts. That is until Easy starts putting the pieces together, and nearly gets himself killed in the process.

While crime writer James Ellroy gives us the white experience of L.A. in the 1960s, Mosely shows off a black man’s decidedly different perspective. “It’s a long way from West L.A. to Watts,” Easy muses. “You pass from white dreams into black and brown realities.” There are also plenty of noir flourishes, with women wearing dresses that “might have been conservative on a lesser body,” and with faces “that would be beautiful twenty years after her death.”

But Mosley is much more than a noir writer. His careful blending of history, racial tension, and urban development in Los Angeles sets up a powerful backdrop for a story as much about male friendship and business as it is about stolen diamonds.

A tall order for any novel, but Walter Mosley — just like Easy Rawlins — is on the case.

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