By Ian G. Wilson
I had never read a Walter Mosley book before I picked up A Little Yellow Dog. I had heard good things about Easy Rawlins, his sometime private eye, so I was not surprised to find myself deeply impressed by Mosley’s novel, the fifth in the series.
It’s not just that Mosley has an outstanding command of short, snappy scenes which feature excellent character development, sage but witty commentary from Easy, and enough setting to get a feel for the Los Angeles neighborhoods which Easy frequents. More than that, A Little Yellow Dog is an important work because of its frank discussion of the African American experience in California. I was appalled as I read the book at how little things have changed, as Easy’s remarks closely parallel those of people currently concerned about issues of police brutality and racism.
A Little Yellow Dog is set in 1963. Easy has decided, after a checkered history detailed in the previous novels, to go straight, and has slyly engineered his way into the job of head custodian at Sojourner Truth High School. The school has a largely black student body, but is run by racist white Principal Hiram Newgate, who is none too fond of the new janitor, and who is anxious to finger Easy for the theft of musical instruments and other items from schools in the district.
But before the principal can sink his claws into him, math teacher Idabell Turner seduces Easy. Idabell asks him to take care of her dog (the titular yellow animal) as her husband has threatened to kill it. The dog and Easy do not get along from the start, though Pharaoh is very fond of Easy’s adopted children, Feather and Jesus. Then a dead man is found on the grounds of the school, and Idabell’s husband, the twin brother of the dead man, is shot to death. Easy finds himself entangled in the police investigation largely through being in the wrong places at the wrong times. He becomes suspect number one, and must find a way to clear his name by solving the crime.
Mosley has an outstanding cast of supporting characters to back up Easy. There is Mouse, a philosophical hit man, who often reflects on his past; Bonnie Shay, a flight attendant with Air France, who becomes Easy’s confidante; the overzealous investigating officer Sergeant Sanchez; and Jackson Blue, who has set up a high tech answering machine network to run a bookmaking operation. These are just a few, and, admittedly, it can be a little tricky to keep track of all of the people Easy encounters throughout the novel. Probably this is a similarity of names in some cases (several characters have the initial “B” for example). But Mosley does his best to keep them distinctive, and when you meet each new person, you are greeted with an eloquent description of their qualities:
“Alva knew how to cook but that was only window dressing on a woman like her. If she had the strength of mind and spirit to pull John out of the sour funk of his life; if she could get him out of the bar business and into gardens and building houses—then she was Helen and Cleopatra in one.”
Easy grew up in Texas, as did some of his friends, and he is well acquainted with Southern racism, but he finds a brutal lack of justice for blacks in Los Angeles as well. In one scene, in an effort to break Easy and have him confess to the crimes, Sanchez leads him on a circuitous route through the jail underneath the station. The bloodied and beaten prisoners he encounters are a stark reminder of the inhuman treatment of African Americans by law enforcement. Later Sanchez takes Easy to an interrogation room and there is a terrifying scene where the police officer tries to intimidate our narrator by employing a huge white man who is obviously there to beat and torture suspects.
Not all the cops are bad. Easy is able to rely on one white officer who doesn’t exactly like him, but who is fair minded and in a position of authority. This man is also not fond of Sanchez. But by and large, Easy understands the simmering relationship between blacks and whites and is acutely aware of what he’s up against:
“Newgate was watching me. I was used to it. White people like to keep their eyes peeled on blacks, and vice versa. We lie to each other so much that often the only hope is to see some look or gesture that betrays the truth.”
Easy’s observations can be eloquent and lyrical. I enjoyed the almost poetical sounds of them. Here he approaches the Chantilly Club where he hopes to find out more about the brothers:
“From the top of a steep stairway I could hear the weak strains of a jazz horn. Three notes and I knew who was playing. Three notes and I remembered the first night I’d heard that tune, the woman I was with, the clothes I was wearing (or wished I was wearing), and the rhythm of my stride. That horn spoke the language of my history; travelled me back to times that I could no longer remember clearly—maybe even times that were older than I; traveling, in my blood, back to some forgotten home.”
Walter Mosley is of African American and Jewish descent, and was born in California. His first book was Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), an Easy Rawlins mystery which was made into a film starring Denzel Washington. Later he created detective series featuring other sleuths, including Fearless Jones and Leonid McGill. He has won numerous awards, including the Anisfield Wolf Award for books that address the issue of race, and an O. Henry Award. He is a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America.
A Little Yellow Dog was published by Norton in 1996. It is available at Greenville Public Library.