Easy Rawlins sizzles as Watts burns.
The official death toll in the 1966 Watts riots is 33, but the LAPD is keeping a 34th fatality quiet. The victim is red-haired Nola Payne, a.k.a. Li’l Scarlet, strangled and then shot after she rescued a white man who’d been rousted from his car by an opportunistic thief. Det. Melvin Suggs and Deputy Commissioner Gerald Jordan don’t say it in so many words, but the cops who drive the streets hassling loners are scared to go door-to-door asking questions while storefronts are still smoldering. So Easy accepts a paper from Jordan authorizing him to investigate. As usual, Easy isn’t much of a detective—his inquiries lead to a chain of suspicious characters who finger one another—but he could hardly be improved as a philosopher and aphorist. Recognizing early on that the official response to the riots, enlisting subservient black men into the oppressive ranks of white officialdom and cracking down on the rest, marks “the beginning of the breakup of our community,” Easy, who’s “never willingly said anything intelligent” to a white man, follows a trail of ill-fated souls who’ve sought to cross racial divides till he finds the most tortured killer of his checkered career (Six Easy Pieces, 2003, etc.).
The real strength of Easy’s narrative, though, is his unflinching recognition that in working with the police, he’s crossing the same border that’s driven his brothers and sisters to violence.