Blonde Faith, By Walter Mosley, Little, Brown, 308 pp., $25.99
Walter Mosley dedicates his latest novel, "Blonde Faith," to August Wilson, yet all of Mosley's Easy Rawlins mysteries have unfolded as a kind of nod to the works of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.
Beginning with "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," Wilson embarked on his exceptional "Pittsburgh Cycle," 10 plays covering each decade of 20th-century African-American life. ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is the only play set outside Pittsburgh's Hill District, where Wilson was raised.)
In 1990, Mosley introduced Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a black World War II veteran and self-styled private detective, in "Devil in a Blue Dress." While Mosley's wily gumshoe stories invited facile comparisons to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe books, it was Wilson's plays, including "The Piano Lesson" and "Fences," of which they were most evocative.
Within the well-worn detective genre, Mosley contemplates the African-American experience in all its glories and defeats, its indefatigable resilience and self-destructive tendencies. From the cautious optimism of postwar life in the 1940s to the calamitous urban riots of the 1960s, Mosley has concocted popular entertainment that also succeeds as illuminating historical fiction.
And like Wilson, who died in 2005 shortly after completing "Radio Golf," the 10th and concluding play of his cycle, "Blonde Faith," Mosley's 10th book in his acclaimed series, may be his final Easy Rawlins mystery.
That's the much-repeated rumor in literary circles, anyway; the book's jacket makes a point of declaring this "The Tenth Easy Rawlins Thriller," as if the 10th equals the last. If true, what a shame it would be. Though Mosley is one of contemporary literature's most prolific authors with more than 25 books, including forays into science fiction and erotica, published in 17 years, he's often at his best when delving into the uneasy life of his South Central Los Angeles-based detective.
The year is 1967, and Easy is still reeling from the loss a year earlier of his beloved girlfriend Bonnie, "the woman of my life," as he calls her, as detailed in Mosley's 2005 "Cinnamon Kiss." He's ready to wash her out of his mind with whiskey when she calls to tell him she's getting married. Depression, sour and strong, drapes over him, but there are other distractions to keep the blues temporarily at bay.
Easy's best friend, the nefarious Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, is missing, and the police are trying to pin a murder on him. It's not that Mouse isn't capable of taking a life, but Easy can't imagine his trigger-happy pal leaving any witnesses or clues to incriminate himself.
At the same time, Easy is also concerned about the whereabouts of another friend, Christmas Black, who has left his young adopted Vietnamese daughter, Easter Dawn, in Easy's care.
Throughout his Rawlins mysteries, Mosley has remained true to the evergreen tenets of detective fiction - guns blaze, bodies fall, blood flows. And always, things are rarely as they seem once Easy finds himself in the insidious company of beautiful women and brutal men.
Yet this series offers more than shadows and suspects, and "Blonde Faith" in particular is infused with melancholy and middle-age regret. Easy has come a long way from the battlefields of France and Germany to the tough streets of Watts, where he has built a solid life with his children. Yet he's always been a philosophical man, and his mistakes, like pushing Bonnie away, have begun to weigh on him like chains.
Near the end of "Blonde Faith," Easy speaks of being in "a state of grace, making my way up the coast, rolling toward tomorrow." Whether Easy has any more tomorrows remains to be seen. Still, if this is the last we hear from him - and by the final page, it certainly seems that way, as Mosley largely shuns any maddening David Chase-style ambiguity - then this captivating author has delivered a refined, bittersweet coda to his always-engrossing series.
Renée Graham is a freelance writer.