On the heels of becoming the first Black man to be honored with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (DCAL) last year at the 71st National Book Awards, Walter Mosley continues advancing the mystery genre with his novel Blood Grove, the newest installment in his Easy Rawlins series. Rawlins works as a private investigator taking cases and earning favors more valuable than any hourly rate. His ability to pass freely between the underworld of crime and the underworld of the Los Angeles Police Department is his superpower.
Despite his ability to slip in and out of darkness with an ease akin to walking through walls, Rawlins cherishes his peace. He smokes one calming cigarette a day surrounded by twenty-seven rose bushes on the roof of a lavish home. It is a calm sought to stave off the rage of a Black man who has lived through the Civil Rights Movement and the violent undoing of some of its leaders, a man not far removed from a war that was not the fight of his people. So, when a shell-shocked veteran – a White man – crosses his threshold one summer morning in 1969, Rawlins reads the potential for danger immediately. Craig Kilian is afraid he may have killed someone – a Black man – during an altercation at an orange orchard. The fight left Kilian unconscious, only to rise and find no evidence of the incident whatsoever.
The haze of details thickens as Rawlins follows leads to dead ends and blood-red herrings. As in his other adventures, Rawlins makes enemies throughout the investigation of sex clubs, porn lairs, and legitimate businesses run by certified killers. All the while, he never forgets to be a father to his adopted teenage daughter, Feather. As she struggles with shaping her identity – her biological uncle appears unexpectedly with hopes to share details of their family history – Rawlins and his village of brilliant and murderous friends work together to keep her, his most beloved rose, safe and living a close-to-normal life.
Mosley’s authorial superpower remains his razor-sharp perception. Through Rawlins, who operates from his corner of Los Angeles, Mosley speaks to the nation’s current ills, to the effect that Blood Grove feels more like Rawlins seeing into the future than Mosley writing about the past:
The sleeping giant of white guilt was awakening and there seemed to be some kind of hope for the future. If you were innocent enough, or ignorant enough, you might have believed that things were improving in such a way that all Americans could expect a fair shake.
Here Rawlins utters an eloquent warning. The Civil Rights Movement was a series of necessary pushes by Black people to get what they were – and are – rightly (over)due. It was a movement punctuated by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – one year before the setting of Blood Grove. This novel is more than a simple mystery meant for entertainment; it and its serial predecessors advocate for the Black hero in literature and in life.
At a time when cities around the world are speaking out against the unjust treatment of Black and Brown people, particularly by police – as in the Ferguson uprising, the death of George Floyd, Sandra Bland and countless others – Mosley astutely invokes the imagery of segregation during World War II and the some hundred cities burning during the unrest that ensued after King’s assassination. Rawlins survived it all.
Today, major corporations are establishing diversity, equity, and inclusion committees and issuing public statements in solidarity with people from marginalized communities in response to the public outcry. The words uttered by Mosley through Rawlins are a reminder that there will always be social justice work to be done and that not many will leave unscathed by the trauma – and he manages to do it without a soapbox. The number of times that Rawlins is stopped and frisked and brutalized by police or is forced to absorb racial epithets just for being a Black man comfortable in his own skin is all in prophetic conversation with the present day. It is evidence of perseverance.
Despite the painful history lessons he faces along the way, Rawlins’s journey is not without joy. From his witty remarks while staring down the barrel of a gun to being genuinely starstruck when a member of the Rat Pack makes a cameo, to his unapologetic love for his daughter, Blood Grove is not so bleak and burdened to the point of unapproachability. It is a strong entry in a robust series and an even stronger entry into the genre that further solidifies Rawlins as an enduring figure, one who has survived and thrived in a world that sees him as less than the hero he is.
By Walter Mosley
Published February 2, 2021