MAKE no mistake: For all his geniality and modest temperament, mystery writer Walter Mosley is not a man to trifle with.
Solid of build, quick of intellect, with luminous eyes that cut to the core, Mr. Mosley likes nothing better than to engage in good-natured give-and-take about society, poverty, and racism in post World War II America.
Acclaimed author Mosley, a favorite of President Clinton, is the creator of two of the toughest sleuths in American mystery-genre fiction: Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins, and his sidekick, Raymond (Mouse) Alexander, both of whom are black and who hail from the mean streets of South-Central Los Angeles.
Easy Rawlins, like his name, can be easy going. But that Mouse! Cross words with this fellow, whom even Easy dreads, and one is likely to experience a quick exit from terra firma. And when Mosley leans back in his chair, narrows his eyes, smiles ever-so-slightly, and says that ``Mouse is a hero,'' even this journalist is alerted to tread carefully. Easy and Mouse, after all, are not fellows to annoy.
Mosley's fourth and latest Easy Rawlins caper, ``Black Betty'' (W.W. Norton, 255 pp., $19.95) is deservedly garnering the praise from critics accorded his earlier novels, ``Devil In A Blue Dress'' (1990), ``A Red Death'' (1991), and ``White Butterfly'' (1992), also published by W.W. Norton.
``Black Betty,'' in which Easy tracks down a woman he met as a young boy, takes place in 1961 and is set against the background of the new Kennedy administration, the civil rights struggle, and the cold war.
``Most mystery writers [such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett] have taken the fetters off their heroes,'' Mosley says. ``Their heroes are set free from the concerns of family, jobs, or responsibilities. But I've done just the opposite with Easy Rawlins. Easy struggles to pay the mortgage or meet the rent payment, just like other working people. He has children. He owns property and has responsibilities,'' Mosley says.
Still, something invariably happens to unsettle Easy's routine. Usually it involves a white person who comes into the black community and calls on Easy for help. Easy resists the request, but finally submits - often because there is an element of intimidation involved.
Mosley's books crackle with action, mayhem, and amorous liaisons. But they also vividly recreate a lost time and place: the black community of Los Angeles in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. The post-war L.A. described by Mosley is morally and politically corrupt; for blacks, L.A.'s streets are oppressive. But there is music too, the wailing riffs of jazz woven through Mosley's first book, ``Devil In a Blue Dress.'' In fact, Hollywood has just finished filming a screen version of the book, with Denzel Washington cast as Easy Rawlins.
In ``Devil In a Blue Dress,'' which is set in 1948, Rawlins is asked to track down a young white woman who frequents black jazz clubs; in ``A Red Death,'' which takes place in 1953, Easy is called upon by US federal agents to investigate ``communists'' allegedly infiltrating black churches; in ``White Butterfly,'' set in 1956, Rawlins must find a serial killer.
EASY is clearly recognizable as a black hero - a man who fulfills his responsibilities in a largely racist society. But is Mouse a hero? Mosley laughs when asked. Revolutionaries ``come from the oppressed class,'' he says, and often ``the revolutionary is a criminal.'' Mouse is to be respected because he demands and wins, at whatever cost, ultimate respect, Mosley says.
``Black Betty,'' addresses racial issues in pointed terms, though often through humor. But Mosley has earned his right to comment on this stain on the American character. Child of a mixed marriage, Mosley's father is black, his mother white and Jewish. Yet Mosley, who grew up in mixed-race working class Los Angeles neighborhoods, remembers happy times as a child. Mosley and his wife now live in New York's West Village. He is currently working on a noncrime novel, ``R. L.'s Dream,'' about a blues guitarist.
Most of Mosley's ``villains'' tend to be white, but this can be explained by the time period and settings of his novels. In the Los Angeles of the post-World War II period, ``most positions of power were held by white people,'' he says. Blacks, on the other hand, lived only on the fringes of power.
Nevertheless many of Mosley's black characters are also morally corrupt. In ``Black Betty,'' a black woman, for example, is slowly stealing Easy's property holdings. In ``A Red Death,'' a black minister has deep character flaws.
Mosley's own sense of fairness comes through at unexpected moments, such as when Easy says in ``Black Betty'' that some liberals view Mark Twain's ``Huckleberry Finn'' as ``racist.'' But Easy Rawlins disagrees with them. ``Huckleberry Finn,'' Easy notes, is about two friends: Huck, who is white, and Jim, who is black. Easy says that he could have been ``either one'' of them.
The rich dialogue and fast-paced plots of Mosley's books belie the hard work involved. ``Black Betty,'' Mosley says, required 16 separate drafts. ``You have to make it truthful,'' he says. What Walter Mosley has done, as any Easy Rawlins fan will quickly attest, is to have created one of the most truthful voices in American fiction.