by Deirdre Jenkins
Part of LM Voice's Theme Studies collection
The novel Black Betty by Walter Mosley is another brick in the wall of work by this famed author known for his intriguing mysteries. The protagonist, P.I. Rawlins, goes in search of a woman named Black Betty. Rawlins’ initial reason for finding Betty is out of duty, as he has been hired by an attorney to locate her for a former employer. His personal reason was a fascination he’d always had for Betty; he wanted to feel that he’d finally had her for himself, after seeing her engaged in a sexual encounter at a young age, which he considers his first experience in intimacy.
This novel deals with three themes – an atmosphere of impending death, feelings of guilt, and a constant presence of suspicious activity. These themes set the tone of fear and suspense.
Rawlins is wracked by feelings of guilt and feels passed by (by life) for several reasons: his friend Bruno has recently died; his friend Martin Smith was dying, and Mouse (Raymond) was in prison for manslaughter. He stated, “I was in a kind of prison too; a prison of guilt; a prison of my mind.” Rawlins’ feelings of guilt may have been caused by his life seeming better than that of his friends; he’d managed to avoid death and imprisonment up to this point while his friends’ lives hadn’t been so easy. This guilt was mostly likely also came from wondering what he could have done to save his friends and being too close to the individuals being investigated to offer any measure of objectivity. In this frame of mind, Rawlins sets out to locate Black Betty as part of an investigation begun by an attorney whose intent initially appears to be questionable because of his vagueness.
Rawlins’ preoccupation with death is evident from the opening chapter, which foreshadowed about Bruno’s death and Rawlins’ guilt. Rawlins explains, “I sat up trying to throw off the nightmare. It had been almost five years, but Bruno died in my dreams at least once a month…I’ll never forget him being nailed to the wall by my best friends’ gun.” Further, he stated, “When Bruno died, I realized that I’d always be surrounded by violence and insanity. I saw it everywhere, even in me.” Rawlins may have regretted not having intervened when his friend Bruno was killed. As a reader, I questioned whether he felt helpless. I wondered how close he was in proximity to him or whether he realized too late the danger Bruno was in. The end of Chapter 8 gave an idea about death no longer haunting him, but Rawlins knew death was coming. This appears to have been an expectation for him which was almost fulfilled.
The suspicious activity in this novel centers around many of the characters that Rawlins visits at their residence. These characters are involved in various aspects of the bookie trade. Whether this was simply how community members earned a living at that time or perhaps they engaged in this by choice, I, the reader am not certain. The book is set in Los Angeles in the 1960s where racial tensions were high, but this decade was also a hopeful time for many Black Americans. The hope they had was in better job opportunities, education, and gaining social status which offered them a better life. Rawlins wrote, “I tried to think of better things. About our new young Irish President and Martin Luther King; about how the world was changing and a black man in America had the chance to be a man for the first time in hundreds of years.” This opportunity of a better life presents a contradiction to the characters of the novel whose lives haven’t changed for the better yet.
Overall, this novel was enjoyable to read. I initially felt that the actual plot was unfolded too slowly, and he could have been given more in the first several chapters. However, Mosely was building a storyline by not revealing the entire plot so early on and he slowly introduced characters by showing how they function in their daily lives. An unexpected plot twist involving an unlikely relationship (avoiding a spoiler) will keep Black Betty on my mind. It will be most appreciated by any readers who’ve read other stories in the Easy Rawlins series, and though this is my first novel by Mosley, I enjoyed it and may read his work again.
Deirdre Jenkins is an avid reader who enjoys fiction, usually about relationships and resolution. Jenkins is a student at Santa Ana College, and wrote this review as part of her library internship program.