The Summer of Love, through the eyes
of a black American veteran of W.W. II

''Cinnamon Kiss''
By Walter Mosley
(Little, Brown; 312 pp.; $24.95)
Buy at Amazon

Reviewed by John Orr
October 2005

Cinnamon Kiss book cover"Cinnamon Kiss,'' the latest Easy Rawlins story from the great Walter Mosley, is not as stunningly powerful as the last previous book in the series, "Little Scarlet.''

But, "Little Scarlet'' is one of the strongest and most important American novels since, say, Toni Morrison's "Beloved,'' and we can't expect Mosley to climb that mountain again every time he starts piling up paper for another book.

Yet "Cinnamon Kiss'' is still an excellent mystery, and it's pure, densely packed, full-of-ideas Mosley -- a writer who can put a world of ideas in sentence, a story teller who puts the whole weight of black American history on the strong shoulders of his Los Angeles detective and school janitor, Easy Rawlins.

This book is set in 1966, a year after the Watts uprising, and takes Rawlins to San Francisco during the Summer of Love. He is amused by the hippies and likes their lack of racism and their free-love ways. After another in a little series of women lets him know she would like to get closer to him, he muses "Yes sir. Twenty years younger and I'd have bushy hair down to my knees.''

But Rawlins is in a hurry and has terrible pressures weighing him down: His daughter Feather has a blood infection that may kill her, despite the medicine of folk doctor Mama Jo, and her only hope is to go to a clinic in Switzerland -- which will cost a lot of money. Rawlins' girlfriend Bonnie, a stewardess, has arranged to get Feather in the clinic, but Rawlins still needs to come up with $35,000.

Which is why the book opens with Rawlins considering taking part in an armored-car robbery with his friend Raymond "Mouse'' Alexander. To Rawlins, stealing money would be selling his soul; but he can't bear the idea of losing Feather. He puts Mouse off for a time; but he is so much in shock from his fears for Feather and so against stealing that he drives through L.A. in a mental fog, nearly running over a child in the process. Very unlike the usually careful Rawlins.

Finally his friend Saul Lynx comes through with a job working for another detective in San Francisco. The job would pay $10,000. The Bay Area detective is Robert E. Lee, known as Bobby Lee, said to be a brilliant and eccentric fellow. Saul has never met him personally, but has always worked through Lee's assistant, the beautiful Maya Adamant.

The job is to find a man who "absconded'' with a briefcase that contains some documents. The man is accompanied by a black woman, Philomena Cargill, who is known as Cinnamon because of her reddish skin tone. Rawlins is needed because he has entrée to the black community of Los Angeles, where Cinnamon is thought to be hiding.

Rawlins finds terrible things in a Berkeley ashram, including the body of the rich young man, Axel Bowers, who took the briefcase. There is a cache of Nazi memorabilia, including pornographic photographs. And, the "stolen'' briefcase -- empty -- and a note proving that Bowers did not steal it, but had inherited it. That part of the case would be over if he told anyone, and he still needs that $10,000 for Feather. So he leaves the body, swearing to the corpse that if he finds out who killed him, he will do his best to make the person pay for the crime.

"I ... stole away from the white man's home luckier to be a poor black man in America than Axel Bowers had been with his white skin and all his wealth.''

Whatever was in the briefcase was of value to someone; and chances are it has something to do with those photographs of Nazis. Later, Rawlins finds out that some rich Americans had done business with the Nazis.

"I was still a good American back in those days,'' Rawlins narrates. "It was almost impossible for me to believe that American businessmen would betray the country that made them rich.''

Rawlins is a veteran of World War II, and has flashback nightmares to the war in this book. A sergeant in the U.S. Army, he is treated as an underling by white men of lesser rank. He is shot at by white men from Germany and white men from the United States. Mosley does not linger long on the theme of men of color going to war for the United States -- in World War II and in Vietnam -- but what is here is full of meaning. And, of course excellent story telling.

Another black man, Christmas Black, new to this series, will explain his own life to Rawlins late in the book, talking about how his family had served the American military starting with the Revolutionary War. But, "War has changed over my lifetime ... At one time I knew who the enemy was ... But now ... now they send us out to kill men never did anything to us, never thought one way or the other about America or the American way of life. When I realized that I was slaughtering innocent men and women I knew that the soldiering line had come to and end with me.''

Rawlins, trying to find the money to save his daughter, is suddenly up to his neck in trouble with rich people who would kill anyone to protect their secrets. Before long his entire family is threatened and he has, in effect lost everything. He has to overcome horrible, powerful enemies to survive at all.

Another theme in this book is love and sex. And it is troublesome, because of what happens between Rawlins and his longtime girlfriend Bonnie. It can't be talked about here because it would be giving away too much on a topic Mosley is treating with a certain distance, and Mosley must be allowed to tell it his way. But it made me feel that that Rawlins -- a man always worthy of deep respect -- has a shallow side; perhaps has clay feet. It will be interesting to see if Mosley treats the topic again in later stories.