The return of
Easy Rawlings

''Bad Boy Brawly Brown''
By Walter Mosley
(Little Brown, 311 pps., $24.95)

Buy it at in hardcover

Reviewed by John Orr
July 2002

Walter Mosley is one of the finest writers working in mysteries today, and his fans can celebrate the reappearance of Mosley's Easy Rawlings in his first book since ''A Little Yellow Dog'' in 1996. (Mosley has published several other books in that time.)

''Bad Boy Brawly Brown'' takes place in 1964, three years after Rawling's longtime friend Mouse had been shot and probably killed (in ''A Little Yellow Dog'').

Rawlings misses Mouse every day. There was never a funeral. Rawlings has been too racked with guilt to find out what finally happened with the body. He has given up doing detective favors for his friends and works as a school janitor to support himself and his children.

But when his old friend John comes calling, hoping Rawlings will find out what's going on with John's stepson, Brawly Brown, Rawlings starts asking around. Seems the boy -- who has a lot of temper, a huge body and a not especially effective brain -- has been hanging around with a political group in Compton.

Brown believes in the group, which supposedly means to make life better for black people. But when Rawlings starts sniffing around, the clay feet start to show. Before long Rawlings has discovered criminals and political hustlers, and his own life and those of everyone close to him are in real danger.

The Los Angeles Police Department shows up at a meeting of the group, cracking heads left and right. A political uprising among black people? No way will the L.A.P.D. stand for that in 1964.

Rawlings thinks about trying to grab Brown then. ''I considered going after the boy, but doubted that either my words or my fists would have made much of an impression. I could have shot him, but didn't think that John or Alva would have taken kindly to that.''

What makes Mosley a great mystery writer is how he describes Rawling's progress as a detective -- the finding of clues, the tapping of resources, the perception and logic he brings to interpreting clues.

What makes Mosley a great novelist is how well he describes what life was like in L.A. in the '60s, and how he allows Rawlings to develop as a character. He is a master of how people are, how they think and talk.

And a master of dialogue, which is no modest feat when talking about city blacks in the early '60s. Mosley has Rawling craftily using a wide range of speech, using it to lull people into revealing themselves to him, and loving the creativity of it.

It's a detail that stands out to anyone who knew those streets in those days. L.A. blacks in the '60s had fun with the spoken word and that creativity was probably a factor in the development of hip hop.

And it's all part of Mosley the novelist reminding us, this is the way it was in L.A. back then. A black man gets in trouble in L.A., just about the last thing he'd want to call is the police department.

But, happily, Easy Rawlings is there.