Originally published in 1991
Easy Rawlins #2
Preceded by Devil in a Blue Dress
Followed by White Butterfly
It’s 1953 in Red-baiting, blacklisting Los Angeles—a moral tar pit ready to swallow Easy Rawlins. Easy is out of the hurting business and into the housing (and favor) business when a racist IRS agent nails him for tax evasion.
Special Agent Darryl T. Craxton, FBI, offers to bail him out if he agrees to infiltrate the First American Baptist Church and spy on alleged communist organizer Chaim Wenzler. That’s when the murders begin….
It has been a number of years since I posted about Walter Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins novel, Devil in a Blue Dress. That post was designed to be a comparison between the book and Carl Franklin’s movie and, looking back on it, I feel I ought to have given the novel more focus in its own right. Perhaps I will get around to doing that in time but for now I prefer to push forwards and start to read some of the sequels which have been on my TBR pile for years!
First, a word of warning: the events of A Red Death directly and frequently refer to the ending of the previous novel. Enough of the backstory is given to follow what is going on but I would suggest that were you to skip over the first book you would likely not get as much out of it. Not only would you spoil some developments at the end of the last book, you would also miss out on the character development between the novels both of Easy and also of some of the other recurring figures in his life. That would diminish the experience in my opinion.
In the five years that have passed since the end of Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy has become a landlord and secretly invested in three properties using some undeclared income. He has gone to lengths to disguise his ownership of those buildings, hiring a man named Mofass to act as a property manager on his behalf in exchange for a cut of the rent. He keeps an eye on the buildings himself and the residents think of him as a handyman. The arrangement seems to be working pretty well for him until he is suddenly approached by an IRS agent who believes he has tracked down ownership of the properties to Rawlins and wants to audit his financial records.
Easy is clearly in some pretty big trouble. Fortunately he is thrown a lifeline when he is approached by an FBI agent who promises he can make these legal troubles go away and get him on a payment plan for those back taxes. First though Easy would need to do a job for him and for his country. He is asked to worm his way into the confidences of Chaim Wenzler, a community organizer at a local baptist church to try and find proof that he might be a communist spy. Easy agrees, though he is wary of the agent, but his problems soon multiply as he finds himself discovering several bodies…
One of the things that interests me most about the Easy Rawlins books is Mosley’s really thoughtful exploration of the changes taking place in post-war America and how race affected people’s experiences of those changes. This story, set at the height of the second Red Scare, deals with the growing paranoia about the idea that Communist spys and sympathizers could destroy America. The portrayal of that paranoid attitude is done very well but equally effective is Mosley’s portrayal of how those issues did not necessarily extend throughout all of American society. This is both because of limited media access (a character’s first interaction with a television here is quite memorable) but also that it is hard for some to get animated about protecting the American dream when they are prevented from achieving it.
Another aspect of the setup here that I think it particularly effective is the use of the threat of the IRS audit. Informal, undeclared sources of income are a frequent feature of the hardboiled story and I cannot remember the sudden influx of capital ever being commented on in this sort of story before. This not only serves as an effective source of motivation for Easy to get involved in the case, it is also used to comment on the way authority is used.
As in the first novel, the character of Easy is thoughtfully developed here. Easy soon finds himself feeling increasingly conflicted about his role in this case. He finds unexpected common ground with his target, Chaim, and guilt about his duplicity in getting close with him and his family. I enjoyed these characters’ exchanges a lot and felt that the development of this relationship was rich and nuanced, providing a strong center for the novel.
Easy is not a perfect man – some will take issue with his simultaneous proclamations of love for a woman while he sleeps around with several other characters – but he is always an interesting one. Similarly I think that some of the backstory we get around his life before he enlisted in the US army is interesting and futher fleshed out the character.
There are several characters who return from the first novel and I feel that each receives similarly rich development. Mouse’s struggle to understand how to be a father when he had such a toxic relationship with his own is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying while I think Etta Mae feels more richly rendered than in her previous appearance. The overlap between those relationships is intriguing and handled thoughtfully – especially as Easy tries to navigate an awkward situation with Mouse.
A Red Death is not only a historical novel and a piece of character study though, it is a hard-boiled mystery story. Unfortunately the genre elements of the book were, in my opinion, its least compelling features. My issue with it as a mystery is not that it lacks incident but rather than the various incidents we experience feel quite disconnected for much of the novel and so it is hard to focus on a central question or plot problem. Mosley does, of course, bring everything together at the end but I felt that process of consolidation and resolution was a little rushed, reducing its impact.
While I think that the crime plot is less satisfying than that of its predecessor, I appreciated the way Mosley developed his themes and characters. I enjoyed my time with this one overall and look forward to learning what happens next to Easy in White Butterfly.
The Verdict: Though the mystery plot feels a little unfocused, the setting and themes are handled well. Do make sure you read Devil in a Blue Dress first though!