Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Tang of Cinnamon

Even when his plotting totters into the twilight zone, as it does in the tenth book in his series about Easy Rawlins, Walter Mosley has such a firm command over the mind and body of his lead character that he quickly outstrips the bounds of fiction and becomes a man we would recognize in a crowd.

“I had changed the sign on my office door from EASY RAWLINS – RESEARCH AND DELIVERY to simply INVESTIGATIONS,” Easy says. “I made the switch after the Los Angeles Police Department had granted me a private detective’s license for my part in keeping the Watts riots from flaring up again by squelching the ugly rumor that a white man had murdered a black woman in the dark heart of our boiler-pot city.”

That all happened in Little Scarlet, the last and arguably the best Rawlins book because of its overwhelming sense of the racial and social history of Los Angeles. Cinnamon Kiss is bounded by other kinds of 60s history: Vietnam and the hippy explosion, particularly in San Francisco.

Thanks to a fellow private detective, a white man with a black wife, Easy is hired on a Chandleresque task to find some missing bearer bonds supposedly stolen by a lawyer/activist named Axel Bowers. “Bowers had a colored servant named Philomena Cargill, generally known as Cinnamon – because of the hue of her skin, I’m told,” says Rawlins’ new employer – which is why he thinks a black detective will have more success finding her.

Everything about the investigation raises Easy’s blood pressure, especially when he finds Bowers’ body stuffed in a trunk. But it’s either this job or helping his friend Raymond “Mouse” Alexander pull an armed robbery. His real estate dreams – detailed so lovingly in earlier books in the series – have been turned to ashes by the Watts riots: “I owned two apartment buildings and a small house with a big yard, all in and around Watts. But after the riots property values in the black neighborhoods plummeted. I owed more on the mortgages than the places were worth.”

Rawlins finds Cinnamon hiding out in Los Angeles, and there’s an immediate attraction. “When Cinnamon smiled at me I understood the danger she represented,” he says. Easy’s stomach gets almost as large a workout as his other organs -- including this wonderful meal prepared by the wife of Rawlins’ mechanic friend, Primo: “She gave me a large bowl filled with chunks of pork loin simmered in a Pasillo chili sauce. She’d boiled the chilies without removing the seeds so I began to sweat with the first bite. There was cumin and oregano in the sauce and pieces of avocado too. On the side I had three homemade wheat flour tortillas and a large glass of sweetened lemon juice.”

All these elements, rendered in Mosley’s explosively distilled prose as powerful as homemade booze, go a long way to making the plot (Nazis and pornography are part of the package) easier to swallow. In the end, we’re left with the knowledge that Easy will be around for a long time, showing us the world we have lived in. As Mouse’s wife EttaMae says, “Easy Rawlins… if you wandered into a mine field you’d make it through whole. You could sleep with a girl named Typhoid an’ wake up with just sniffles…”