Gene Lyons
June 24, 1994 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Now, it isn’t every private eye who’ll help a vengeful ex-con track down the dude who turned him in for manslaughter, or will fetch quicklime and cement to a friend’s basement to assist in burying an inconvenient corpse. But then Easy Rawlins, the laconic, resourceful protagonist of Walter Mosley’s highly successful series of crime novels, isn’t what you would call a stickler for the rule book. As far as Easy — short for Ezekiel, the biblical name his parents gave him back in rural Louisiana — is concerned, the rules are something rich white folks invent to suit themselves, then change or ignore as needed. For a black man doing his best to get by on the backstreets of Los Angeles in 1961, it’s always wise to be creative.

Strictly speaking, Easy’s not a detective at all. When first we met him in Mosley’s 1990 novel Devil in a Blue Dress (currently being made into a movie starring Denzel Washington), Rawlins was just home from combat duty in World War II. Laid off from his job in 1948 at a Southern California defense plant, he was willing to use his streetwise ingenuity and his wide network of friends to find a missing blond with a propensity for dating black jazz musicians.

Three novels and some 13 years later, in Black Betty, Rawlins has become a real estate investor of sorts, though he’s still obliged to hustle, still living on the edge. John F. Kennedy’s in the White House and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is leading a civil rights crusade in the South, but it’s never easy being Easy. Not only does it look as if he and his pal Mofass are about to be cheated out of their stake in a shopping-mall venture by slick operators who have connections in city hall, but Rawlins’ oldest friend, Mouse, just out of prison, is back on the street and looking for trouble. On top of all that, another alluring woman has turned up missing — Elizabeth Eady, ”Black Betty” to her friends. One way or another, Rawlins has known the woman, now a housemaid in Beverly Hills, since he was 12. What really lies behind a Beverly Hills family’s willingness to pay Easy so much money — the amount keeps ratcheting upward as mysterious deaths begin to mount — to locate a missing housemaid?

Alas, readers familiar with Mosley’s earlier novels can all too easily guess. Newcomers to the justifiably praised series, on the other hand, may end up feeling like strangers at a party. Mostly the problem seems to be Mosley’s overfamiliarity with his material, always a danger in a continuing tale. So sketchy and offhanded is the character development that Easy’s actions often seem random and unmotivated; the secondary players are mere shadow puppets illustrating racial themes. Also, it’s time to lose Mouse, a one-dimensional psychopathic bore. Whether in Louisiana, L.A., or on the dark side of the moon, nobody can feel loyalty to somebody he fears will murder him on a whim. Nobody. C

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