Picks and Pans Review: Black Betty

updated 06/20/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Walter Mosley

In just four years, Walter Mosley has become one of America's best-known mystery writers. Bill Clinton has publicly praised the author's work; Francine Prose has called Mosley's reluctant sleuth, Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, "the most appealingly ambivalent hero in detective fiction," and this fall, Denzel Washington will star in the screen adaptation of Mosley's first Easy novel, Devil in a Blue Dress.

This latest caper showcases Mosley at his edgy best. The year is 1961. Mar-tin Luther King Jr.'s movement marches on, Camelot is on the horizon as is, it seems, a more racially tolerant America. But for Easy Rawlins, there is no hope without headache—especially when white private eye Saul Lynx turns up at his door in L.A. with an old photograph of a missing black beauty.

So begins the search for Elizabeth Eady, "Black Betty" to those, including Easy, who knew her from Houston's notorious Fifth Ward. When last seen, Betty had left Texas and had been working as a maid for a powerful Beverly Hills family; she disappeared after a mysterious death in her employer's family. Working for the cash as well as the prospect of seeing Betty again, Easy takes the case while also dealing with a real estate scam and keeping an eye on an unruly sidekick, who is just out of jail.

As always, Mosley's grip on character is compelling, and his plot, marked by unprecedented violence, chums along. It is, however, Easy's somber exhaustion in an era of supposed change that gives this book its special chill. (Norton, $19.95)

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