Set in 1948, the story begins in the Watts area of Los Angeles, with Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. Easy is a Houstonian, from that city's Fifth Ward, who lost his job at a Los Angeles aviation defense plant, and is unable to pay the mortgage on his LA home. Easy is sitting in a bar run by Joppy, a friend who is also from Houston, when a man named DeWitt Albright walks into the bar and offers him a job finding a young woman named Daphne Monet. Monet, a young white woman, is rumored to be hanging out in bars frequented mostly by African Americans, although white women are allowed inside.
At the bar Easy meets two old friends, Coretta and Dupree, among many other people that he knew from his former life in Houston. Coretta says that she knows Daphne, but gives an incorrect address to Easy. He goes home with them and has sex with Coretta, with Dupree asleep in the next room. Easy then leaves her early the next morning, only to be arrested by the LAPD. Shortly thereafter following police interrogation, he is told that Coretta is dead, and that he is a suspect in Coretta's murder.
When he finally does find Monet, he figures out that she has stolen a large amount of money from a man named Todd Carter, who is a local wealthy businessman. Albright wanted to claim it for himself. Eventually, Albright finds Monet through Easy, who is trying to shield the thieving woman.
Easy enlists the help of a friend and fellow Houstonian, Mouse, who shows up due to a half-hearted invitation from Easy, and domestic strife back home. Easy and Mouse find Monet with Albright and Joppy. They rescue her, and kill Joppy and Albright. Then Mouse reveals that Monet is actually Ruby, an African-American woman passing as white, and the sister of a local gangster named Green. Mouse and Easy blackmail Ruby, taking her money and dividing it into thirds for each of them. Daphne/Ruby leaves shortly thereafter, and Easy has to clean up the mess with the police, as well as Todd Carter, who had initially hired Albright to find her, since he really did love her, and not his money.
Easy approaches Carter and requests his help with the police. He blackmails him by saying that he will leak the information about his love for a black woman unless he is protected from the law. Carter does so. At the conclusion, Mouse returns to Houston, Easy takes up detective work, and Ruby disappears.