Cover image of "Charcoal Joe," a novel about everybody's favorite African-American detective.

Walter Mosley’s hard-boiled sleuth Easy Rawlins roamed the streets of Watts from the 1940s through the 1960s. If there was someone of note in the region unknown to African-American detective Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, he could turn to a wide range of friends and acquaintances, some in law enforcement, some not. There was always a way for Easy to find his man — or, just as often, his woman. And, more often than not, go to bed with her.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

A simple case that’s not simple at all

In Charcoal Joe, the 14th installment in Mosley’s ongoing saga of the brilliant private eye, old friends bring Easy unwelcome new business. The assignment seems simple enough at first. A 21-year-old African-American prodigy with a Ph.D. in Physics from Stanford has been hauled into jail by the LAPD, charged with a murder he seems very unlikely to have committed. But there’s nothing simple about this case. All too quickly, Easy is caught up in an endlessly complicated four-way tussle over millions of dollars in cash and diamonds. Dead bodies fall all along the way.

Charcoal Joe (Easy Rawlins #14) by Walter Mosley (2016) 309 pages ★★★☆☆

Everybody’s favorite African-American detective

Easy Rawlins came up the hard way. He’s an orphan, raised in Texas and Louisiana, who made his way onto the crowded streets of Los Angeles in the years after he left the Army in World War II. In Charcoal Joe, the year is 1968, and Easy is now in his 40s. A recent windfall supplied him with the capital necessary to open a new agency, which he and his two partners have mysteriously called the WRENS-L Detective Agency. Go figure.

Easy encountered early in life some of the many challenges he faced as a Black man, and his often brutal behavior as an African-American detective reflects that. “We came from dark skins, darker lives, and a slim chance of survival,” he muses. “Where we came from he’s dead was as common a phrase as he’s sick or he’s saved. People died in our world with appalling regularity.” He describes his best friend as “one of the most dangerous men alive. . . He was mostly evil and definitely a killer but black men in America had learned centuries ago that the devil not only offered the best deals — he was the only game in our part of town.”

A dizzying cast of characters

The central storyline in Charcoal Joe is clear enough. It’s a murder mystery. Easy’s job is to prove who really killed the two men that the young prodigy is accused of murdering. But the story is overlaid with numerous subplots and a cast of minor characters far too large to follow for a reader with failing memory such as mine. As a window into the diverse African-American community in L.A. in the year when Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated, Charcoal Joe is fascinating. But the novel would have been more successful if Mosley himself or an editor had culled or merged at least a few of the characters. The African-American detective who’s at the center of this story gets a little lost in the midst of this cast of thousands.

About the author

Walter Mosley has written 50 books, including 14 in the series of detective novels starring African-American detective Easy Rawlins. He was the recipient of the 2016 Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Mosley’s work spans a wide range of genres, from detective fiction to erotica, plays, young adult fiction, and nonfiction.

I’ve also reviewed the first of the Easy Rawlins novels, Devil in a Blue Dress (The suspenseful first Easy Rawlins detective novel).

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