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Mystery is a powerful tale of race relations

Who murdered Nola Payne -- and why -- provides the mystery element of "Little Scarlet," yet since this is a Walter Mosley novel, it's the broader historical backdrop that gives this book its disquieting poignancy.

Little Scarlet
By Walter Mosley
Little, Brown, 306 pp., $24.95

Mosley's main focus, as always, is illuminating the African-American experience. As this ninth installment of his critically lauded Easy Rawlins series begins, buildings and tempers are still smoldering in the tense aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. Acrid is the air with the stench of burned plastic and destroyed dreams, as shop owners survey the damage done to their businesses by crowds shouting, "Burn, baby, burn."

Armed National Guardsmen are still patrolling the streets when Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a school custodian and unlicensed private investigator, is approached by Melvin Suggs, a white LAPD detective. "I got a case that needs solving outside of the public eye," Suggs tells Easy, who learns about the killing of Nola, known as "Li'l Scarlet" because of her red hair.

During the riots, Suggs says, a white man was dragged from his car and beaten by a black mob. He managed to escape into a nearby building, the same place where Nola was found beaten, strangled, and shot. Fearing that a police investigation and news of her murder -- as well as a white man's possible involvement -- could reignite the race riots, the police ask Easy to find the man and anything else that might explain why Nola died.

As the fragile relationship between blacks and the police is unraveling, Easy finds himself straddling these two tinderbox communities. With an official letter allowing him free access to investigate wherever the case warrants, Easy enlists the help of his friend Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, a recurring character in this series.

Small and serious, Mouse was a man who "killed without a second thought or a moment's remorse. He was a soldier who had been at war his entire life," says Easy, who narrates the story. Mosley has a taut style that doesn't use one word more than necessary to convey a mood. For example, in describing the smell of a homeless shelter, he writes, "The room smelled of sixteen men down on their luck." A malodorous cocktail of perspiration and stale liquor almost emanates from the page.

Equally piquant are the descriptions of Easy's own conflicted feelings about the riots. He condemns the devastation the riots have left behind, but he also feels the decades of fury that finally erupted in the streets. Explaining the anger to the white principal of the school where he works, Easy tells the woman racism gnaws so deeply into the souls of some black folks, "they don't even know what it's like to walk around with your head held high."

"Almost every black man, woman, and child you meet feels that anger. They never let on, so you've never known. This riot was sayin' it out loud for the first time. That's all. Now it's said and nothing will ever be the same. That's good for us, no matter what we lost. And it could be good for white people too. But they have to understand just what happened here."

Of course, understanding what happened to Li'l Scarlet is also part of the story, and Mosley has crafted a shocking tale of racial hatred and murder that also parallels how his city devolved into rage and civil war.

Born and raised in South Central LA, Mosley, without lapsing into colloquial caricatures, has a sharp sense for the natural rhythms of common speech. He has often been compared to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, yet with each novel in this series, which began with "Devil in a Blue Dress" in 1990, Mosley seems more like August Wilson, whose plays, including Pulitzer Prize winners "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson," examine African-American life throughout the 20th century.

A stellar addition to this superb series, "Little Scarlet" is graced with deep pathos and power. Long after the central mystery is solved, there remains the riddle of communities, white and black, trying to get back to normal, even as everyone knows nothing will ever be normal again.

"It was like war, I thought. A war being fought under the skin of America," Easy says. "The soldiers were all unwilling conscripts who had no idea why they were fighting or what defeat might mean."

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