Utterly absorbing, Charcoal Joe yanks you back to LA in 1968, not long after the Watts riots, and it hurls you into the world of Easy Rawlins, a black man at a difficult time, a private investigator passing the prime of his life. It’s been a while since I’ve read any Easy and I’d wondered if Mosley could’ve kept his edge. Truth is, right now, the author’s incisive observations on skin colour and tensions between the public and police couldn’t possibly be any more relevant. It’s not feasible for a white woman who lives in middle England to even pretend to know what it’s like to live in the skin of a black man in urban America – but Mosley give us bitterly believable glimpses of the racial fractures which still divide American society today.
And then he wraps that message in outstanding crime noir. Murder. A false accusation. Good men who are also violent men. Violent men who are not. Gangsters on the rise and on the wane. Beautiful women. Broken hearts. Liars, cheats, cowards and the febrile heartbeat of a tainted city. Oh, and Fearless Jones (if anyone has his phone number…)
All written with wit and verve in a sparse prose which sums up the human experience in deceptively simple sentences: ‘There was something almost ceremonial about these gestures. First the money, then the woman; after all that, I could go out somewhere to die.’
If I had to fault Charcoal Joe, I’d say that there’s too many layers in the convoluted plot. Even immersed in the story for two solid days, I still couldn’t quite pin down all its intricacies. Similarly, some references to Easy’s history which I’ve missed went way over my head. Even so, I didn’t feel that skipping several of the Rawlins books seriously detracted from my enjoyment of this one – it’s stand-out crime fiction of the highest calibre.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley is available as an ebook or hardback: paperback due in 2017
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