White Butterfly, by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley - White Butterfly - Easy Rawlins book cover

I was going to say that White Butterfly completes Walter Mosley’s ‘Three Colours’ trilogy, after the first and best known of his Easy Rawlins novels, Devil in a Blue Dress, and its sequel A Red Death, but I see that he has since written others in the series which contain colours in the title.  This one is set in 1956, and Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is enjoying home life in Los Angeles with wife Regina, their small daughter Edna and his informally ‘adopted’ son Jesus.  Wanting to mind his own business, he initially rebuffs a somewhat rare black detective who turns to him for help in solving the murders of three black women.  They had all worked in bars and because of their colour and background the white police aren’t particularly bothered.  However, when a white UCLA co-ed is killed using a similar MO political pressures come into play, and the police coerce him into helping by threatening to frame a friend of his for the crimes.  Easy isn’t a detective, but he is smart, with the confidence and resilience that comes from having survived the Second World War as an infantryman.  He knows the community in which he lives, and can go places and ask questions that the police would not be able to do, so he is well placed to probe the mystery.

Things are not always what they seem, and Easy learns that the apparently wholesome co-ed Robin Garnett was also Cyndi Starr, a striptease artist who performed as ‘The White Butterfly’.  But Easy isn’t what he seems either: he maintains a shell for protection in a hostile world that makes it difficult for him to unbend even to his wife.  Not being stupid she realises that he has secrets, though not what they are, and the pressure to find the killer adds to the strain on their relationship.   Staying out late and coming home smelling of other women does nothing for domestic harmony.  The resulting stresses coming from all directions mount and Easy increasingly finds relief in the company of Mr Johnnie Walker.  Things get even worse as he discovers that credit for assisting the police won’t help him when he starts to question their methods and finds himself suddenly on the wrong side of the law.

The image of those mean streets in Mosley’s novel down which Easy must walk, or sometimes stagger, is a plausible one as we are taken on a tour of the seedier parts of California.  It’s not a perfect novel though.  The character of the murderer is not explored, making him a cipher, and how Easy deduces the identity of another murderer is unclear.  The book works better as social commentary than it does murder mystery, and the action often feels like a peg to explore society’s dynamics and personalities.  But the character of Easy is strong enough to draw the reader on, and the snappy dialogue and powerful descriptions make up for weaknesses in the plot.

Easy is a flawed hero but a thoughtful one, and through his eyes we see the difficulties of being black in a 1950s America that has yet to hear about Martin Luther King’s dream.  Not all whites are racist, but even the liberals have their dangers, capable of restricting the authenticity of black experience.  One such is an elderly white librarian who insists on trying to make black children conform to white speech patterns even though these are alien to their culture (Easy himself is able to switch registers as he combines the speech patterns of the black community in his dialogue with the standard language of the first-person narration).  Increasing the complexity, the black detective who initially asks Easy for help doesn’t much like him; there is no reflexive racial solidarity on display here.

Struggling through his woes, professional and domestic, Easy finds that what does not kill him makes him stronger (though his liver might disagree).  There is clearly plenty of life left in the old dog to which the numerous later entries in the series testify as Easy continues to dig into LA’s unsavoury underbelly.  White Butterfly is a page-turner and Mosley has a devoted following, but on the whole, while sympathising with the focus on the black experience, I think I prefer the complexities of James Ellroy’s take on crime in LA, albeit he and Mosley tackle sleaze, corruption and moral turpitude from different angles.

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