The year is 1948. The place: Los Angeles. African-American World War II veteran Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins is surprised when DeWitt Albright, a well-dressed white man, walks into Joppy's bar, normally a hangout for working-class black men. Mr. Albright offers Easy an undercover job and gives him a business card with the location of his office. Easy has just been laid off from his job at Champion aircraft company, and needs to make money for his mortgage. After Joppy convinces him of Mr. Albright's honesty, Easy goes to meet the white man at his office. Mr. Albright tells Easy that his client is looking for a white woman named Daphne Monet, who frequents black speakeasies. Easy agrees to look for her. He takes one hundred dollars cash in advance.
Easy goes to John's Place, an illegal jazz club in the back of Hattie Parson's grocery store. On his way in, he meets a drunken white man who offers him twenty dollars to help him get into the club. Easy refuses, and makes his way inside, where he learns that a chauffeur named Howard Green was beaten to death after leaving the club. Finally, Easy enters John's Place. He starts up a conversation with the doorman, Junior Fornay. He tells Junior that his boss, Benny, fired him as a show of racial superiority. Junior tells Easy that Howard Green was killed because he was working for a man named Matthew Teran. Easy recalls that Junior nearly killed him in a brawl years before in Houston, but Mouse intervened. He tells Junior that the last he heard, Mouse was married to a woman named EttaMae Harris. This talk of Mouse sends Easy reminiscing about his history with the unhinged and murderous man. Easy also asks nonchalantly about Daphne, referring to her as "Delia or Dahlia or something."
Easy's friend, Dupree, arrives with his girlfriend, Coretta. Dupree tells Easy that Benny wants Easy back. Easy agrees to come by on Friday. The friends drink bourbon until Dupree passes out, and Easy and Coretta drag him back to her house. There, Coretta seduces Easy and they have passionate sex while Dupree sleeps. Coretta tells Dupree that she spent time with Daphne. She also tells Easy who Daphne's boyfriend is.
Easy returns home in the morning to find a letter from Mouse, transcribed by a woman named Lucinda because Mouse is illiterate. In it, he says that he is thinking about moving to Los Angeles. Getting a letter from Mouse makes Easy hide in the closet out of instinct. He thinks back to the last time he saw Mouse, when Mouse killed his stepfather, Daddy Reese and blamed the murder on a man named Clifton. Later, when Daddy Reese's real son Navrochet came after Mouse and Easy, Mouse killed him as well. Easy decides that he is too satisfied with his life as a homeowner to return to a life of violence. He falls asleep after drinking a bottle of vodka.
Mr. Albright awakens him with a call and sets up a meeting at the Santa Monica pier. Easy is uncomfortable as he waits for Mr. Albright in mostly-white Santa Monica; indeed, a group of teenage boys begin to harass him. Mr. Albright arrives and threatens to kill the kids,even holding one on his knees at gunpoint. After Albright lets them go, Easy tells Mr. Albright that Daphne was last seen at the Playroom with Frank "Knifehand" Green. Easy, meanwhile, keeps Daphne's picture for himself even though Mr. Albright asks for it back.
The next morning, Easy drives to Champion, where Dupree asks him what he said to Coretta before her recent disappearance. After calming Dupree down, Easy meets with his former boss, Benny. Benny reneges on his offer to restore Easy's job and Easy leaves Champion with a refreshing sense of freedom. Dupree is nowhere in sight as he pulls out of the driveway.
Easy returns to find a black Ford parked outside his house. Two police officers named Miller and Mason arrest Easy and drag him down to the police station, where they interrogate him until after dark. As he walks home, a car pulls up beside him. Inside, Easy meets the disgusting Matthew Teran -- an ex-mayoral candidate -- and his sex slave, a young Mexican boy. Teran pries to no avail for information about Daphne and Howard Green. Easy then heads to John's Place.
At John's Place, Hattie tells Easy that Coretta has been brutally murdered in the same fashion as Howard Green and that the police are interrogating Dupree. Odell drives Easy home and advises him to leave town, but Easy is too proud of being a homeowner to do so. After a fitful sleep, Junior awakens Easy at three in the morning with a phone call, telling Easy that he saw Daphne with Frank Green at John's Place a week before. Easy falls asleep again only to be awoken a second time with a call from Daphne Monet herself. In her French accent, Daphne begs Easy to come over and give her money for a cab.
Easy finds Daphne with a battered suitcase, asking him to bring her to see her friend, Richard. They find Richard -- the same white man Easy spotted outside of John's Place -- dead, a butcher knife in his chest. Daphne hurridly throws her suitcase into a pink Studebaker, speaking with a Southern rather than a French accent, and flees, though not before kissing Easy so hard that she chips his tooth.
Easy arrives home to find that Mr. Albright, Manny and Shariff have ransacked his home. Mr. Albright tries to intimidate Easy, but Easy keeps his cool. Albright tells Easy to see Mr. Baxter, giving him a card. Easy sends Mr. Albright to Richard's house and then sleeps all day. Upon waking he calls EttaMae Harris to invite Mouse to Los Angeles.
The next day, Easy dresses in his best suit and goes to see Mr. Baxter, the vice president of Lion Investments. Easy convinces Baxter to let him see Mr. Carter, the president. Mr. Carter explains that he loves Daphne and wants her back. He tells Easy that she fled because someone was trying to use her to blackmail him. Before leaving, she stole thirty thousand dollars from him. He offers Easy one thousand dollars to find Daphne. Easy accepts.
After his meeting, Easy tries to track down Frank Green. He finally finds Frank on a tip from Jackson Blue, who leads him to Abe's liquor store, which is run by two brothers-in-law who survived the Holocaust together. Easy asks them where he can find bootleg bourbon, knowing that Frank is a bootlegger. Next, Easy visits Joppy's bar and accuses Joppy of giving Daphne his phone number. It turns out that Joppy, who is enamored of Daphne, thought he was doing Easy a favor by pretending he did not know Daphne. Joppy says he knows who killed Richard McGee, but refuses to tell Easy.
When Easy returns home, Frank Green ambushes him and pins him to the couch at knifepoint. Just when Easy seems done for, Mouse appears with a pistol and threatens to shoot Frank Green. He pistol-whips Frank, who escapes. Easy agrees to let Mouse help him as long as Mouse follows his instructions. He puts Mouse on Frank's trail and decides to locate Daphne himself. Mason and Miller intercept Mouse and Easy as they leave Easy's house. Mouse gives them the slip, but the officers take Easy for questioning. They suspect him of killing Teran, who has been shot through the heart, because Teran questioned Easy about Howard Green. They fingerprint and release him.
Mouse picks up Easy from the police station and drives him to see Junior Fornay. Easy produces a cheap cigarette butt that he found on Richard McGee's floor, saying that he knows the cigarette is Junior's and that Junior killed Richard. Junior confesses at Mouse's gunpoint that he killed Richard out of anger after driving him home the night he was drunk. Easy and Mouse leave for Dupree's hiding place -- his sister, Bula's house. There, Dupree and Mouse drink until they pass out. Easy takes one of Mouse's guns and leaves to track down Daphne.
Easy picks Daphne up from her motel and brings her to his Mexican friend Primo's house. Daphne and Easy make love all night. Afterwards, Daphne fills Easy in on a lot of the plot, revealing that Richard has sold Teran his sex-slave, that Mr. Carter had pressured Teran out of the mayoral election when he learned about the sex-slave, and that Joppy murdered both Howard Green and Coretta. Daphne then offers Easy two thousand dollars to take her to Frank and tells him that she loves him. She also tells him the terrible story of her molestation at her father's hands.
When Easy and Daphne get back to Primo's, Easy is knocked unconscious. He dreams that he is back in World War II, struggling to survive aboard a sinking battleship. When he awakens, Daphne is gone. Primo tells him that Joppy and Mr. Albright were there.
Easy goes to Mr. Albright's home address in Malibu to find Joppy and Mr. Albright interrogating Daphne, who is naked on the couch. Easy sneaks in, but Mr. Albright sees him and a gun battle ensues. Joppy runs out the door. Mouse arrives and shoots Mr. Albright after subduing Joppy, who they tie to a chair. Strangely, Mouse calls Daphne "Ruby" and she calls him by his full name, "Raymond." He tells her that Frank is dead, and demands part of her thirty-thousand dollars. Mouse explains that Frank was Daphne's half-brother and that he has long known them. When Joppy denies killing Frank, Mouse kills him.
As they drive back to Los Angeles, Daphne confesses that she killed Matthew Teran. She visited Teran to beg him to leave her alone, but he mocked her and fondled his Mexican sex slave in front of her. She got so angry that she shot him through the heart and rescued the boy. Back in town, Daphne divides the thirty thousand dollars evenly between herself, Easy, and Mouse. She is cold to Easy and tells him that her father raped her repeatedly until Frank killed him. She asks Easy to bury Frank and rescue the Mexican boy.
Mouse leaves for Houston to try to win EttaMae back with his ten thousand dollars and Easy takes the Mexican boy from Daphne's place to Primo's. Then he visits Mr. Carter, who he tells about the killings except for the death of Joppy, who he says "disappeared." He tells Mr. Carter that Daphne left only because she loved him too much to stay. Mr. Carter and Easy then go to City Hall, where Easy convinces city officials that the murders centered on Frank Green and not Daphne. Easy succeeds in charming the officials, who let him go. On his way out of City Hall, Miller stops Easy and threatens to prove that he killed Richard McGee. Easy sends Miller on Junior's trail.
The book ends three months later. Easy waters his garden and talks to Odell, explaining that he works as a private eye now and has already solved some interesting cases. Without using names, Easy asks Odell two questions. The first is if he was right not to turn Mouse into the police even though he knew Mouse killed Frank and Joppy. Odell says that it is best to protect one's friends. Then he asks whether he was right to finger Junior as Richard McGee's killer. Odell quips: "I guess you figure that that other guy [Junior] got ahold of some bad luck." At this, the two friends share a laugh.