Book Report 008: Walter Mosely, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS

Washington Square · 1990

Oh, man, is that more like it.

Look, I'm an English major lit nerd who loves soaking in the quiet backwaters of Victorian, Edwardian, and Georgian (V) literature, where the surfaces are but rarely ruptured by a fleck of life however lazy . . . but I'm also a genre reader who will blow through a crime paperback in an afternoon and count it time well spent.

This is my first encounter with Walter Mosley (spoilers: definitely not my last), and where has Easy Rawlins been all my life? Though I'm not sure I would have understood as much about him when I was a teenager in love with Marlowe and Spade. (I'm very ahem white.) But if an adulthood of listening to jazz and blues and soul has done anything it's helped me cross the racial borders of the imagination (imagination being the key word; I'm not so foolish as to think I'll ever really know what it's like to be a black man in midcentury Los Angeles), and after closing Devil In A Blue Dress I was prepared to call Philip Marlowe a rough draft; his nobility is unearned, his outsider status unenforced. Easy Rawlins, on the other hand, is as much Existential Man as Black Man.

This kind of highfalutin theorizing is only possible because Mosley approaches his novel with unusual literary skill. Not that he shows off — the borders of the crime-novel genre are too rigorously enforced for that — but he manages the extremely difficult task of embedding metaphor in plot and character, without ever dropping the naturalist façade of hardboiled tradition, with such aplomb that I'm left wondering if it's just my imagination.

It's not. Easy is both himself, a deftly drawn character whose observational powers and ability to take a beating never strain credulity, and a sort of archetypal Twentieth-Century Black Male, born in Louisiana, raised in Texas, participant in World War II, fetched up in Los Angeles and making the gestures of citizenship and homeownership without being granted either the privacy of a citizen or the right to self-defense of a homeowner. (His story is that of jazz, and of the blues, over the same period. In 1948, the year Devil In A Blue Dress is set, the L.A. scene was perhaps the hoppingest in black music. Unless it was Chicago.) And the central moral struggle of Rawlins' life, his need/distaste for his murderous gangster friend Mouse, is as self-conscious a metaphor for black manhood as anything in Richard Wright or August Wilson. (In fact, the one possible misstep I can name is that having both Mouse and The Voice as foils to Rawlins' instincts feels like redundancy; I wouldn't be surprised if one or the other disappeared from the series.)

The plot, as far as it goes, is more or less familiar to those who know their Raymond Chandler: the standard noir themes of blackmail, adultery, incest, and large sums of cash are all in play. But setting it among black L.A. — in Watts, which Wikipedia assures me will become important in future novels — adds an extra dimension of psychological tension, an element of totalitarian danger.

If I didn't have this dumb blog project I would be on the library's website right now reserving every Mosley book they've got. As it is, I'll have to forbear continuing the adventures of Easy Rawlins (and others). But man oh man I can't wait.

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