Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress

I was a bit disappointed when I finished reading Devil in a Blue Dress last night. Easy Rawlins is a great character, no doubt, and there are some very interesting aspects of the book. One of them is its post-war context, specifically as felt and explained by Easy himself as a black man who fought in what some saw as a white man’s war, his experiences of tension but also solidarity in the army, his frustrations on returning to an America where despite being a veteran he found himself still an outsider, still vulnerable to the degradation of police harassment and abuse. Mosley manages to make Easy’s social commentary and criticism seem natural to his first-person narration, moments of articulated reflection rather than didactic exposition. Easy’s narration itself is also very interesting, particularly when juxtaposed against the speaking voice he uses in conversation–or speaking voices, I should say, as he shifts deftly between registers to suit his purposes, or to meet or surprise his audience.

What I found less interesting was the book’s take on its adopted genre. The deliberate throw-back to hard-boiled detection has its provocative features, as discussed, for instance, in Daylanne English’s essay “The Modern in the Postmodern: Walter Mosley, Barbara Neely, and the Politics of Contemporary African-American Detective Fiction,” which I read after finishing the book. English disputes other critics, who emphasize the difference it makes that Mosley’s hard-boiled private eye is black, and instead argues for the significance of the similarities between Mosley and his predecessors: “Mosley’s…return to a quintessentially modern and quintessentially cynical genre now is to argue that we have not yet earned the ‘post’ in postmodernity.” That is, if I follow her correctly, Mosley’s close imitation of a form with its origins in a particular moment in the American past, rooted in particular critiques of that moment, is his way of saying not much has changed:

He chooses to return in the 1990s and early 2000s to a genre born of 1930s discontent in order to write novels set in the 1940s-60s, thereby enacting a complex process of literary anachronism that describes and inscribes present-day injustice and discontent.

The familiarity of Easy Rawlins’s situation as a black man in America, even the ready-to-hand recent parallels between real events and things that happen in the series (such as the Rodney King beating) tell us that the past is not as past as we like to imagine–“at least some things are liable to stay the same, across time, for poor and working-class black men in Los Angeles.” I find this a plausible reading of the effect of this ‘literary anachronism,’ though at the same time that seems a potentially ineffective, because fairly oblique, way to offer social critique aimed at present problems. It has to occur to the reader to make the modern-day comparisons–not that they are terribly remote, but there are ways they could be made immediate in the novel itself (for instance, by placing Rawlins’s narrative specifically in the present so that he could incorporate some retrospective comparisons? he is speaking from the future, as he does make some ‘the way things were back then’ remarks, but I don’t think we know exactly when he is telling the story from). Still, this is one of the ways I would probably approach the novel if I taught it, asking not only what difference it makes to the genre of hard-boiled detection when the protagonist is black (as, with Paretsky’s Indemnity Only, we ask what difference it makes when the investigator is a woman), but what it means to recreate not just the style but the period, as Mosley does so well.

But it’s that very close imitation of an earlier form, good as it is, that leaves me reluctant to use the novel. For me, it didn’t seem different enough. It recreates the things that worry and weary me about hard-boiled detective fiction: it portrays a grim, violent world and the violence is quite sensationalized; the men are tough, callous even, and the women are peripheral, victims or (as in the case of the eponymous ‘devil’) vamps. The case itself turns primarily on money and power–and it’s every bit as tangled in its details as its hard-boiled models, meaning by the end I wasn’t even really trying to keep all the deals and double-crosses straight. It didn’t seem to me, either (though I haven’t thought this through all the way yet) that race played a key thematic, rather than contextual, role. Maybe there are other books later in the series that let go of, or interrogate more forcefully, the problematic features of this particular kind of detective novel. I have time to do some more reading and thinking, and I should, as I would like my reading list to represent better the diversity of voices working in the genre. English’s essay makes me think that in addition to more of Mosley’s, I should look up Neely’s books; I also have Gar Haywood and Grace Edwards on my list. Any other suggestions?

5 Comments to Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress

  1. April 11, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting, Rohan. I read this before Christmas and loved the narrative voice, but found it too easily violent and convoluted for my personal taste (I’m interested how my own reaction may be different because I wasn’t thinking of teaching it!) I’m not sure I can agree with the critic you quote for the same reasons as you. I felt it was a vivid recreation of an era – a reminder, if you like, of where race relations used to be, a reminder of how easily they could get there again. What I remember thinking was how violent and untrustworthy everyone was, white or black, male or female. I put that down to the racial tension: that when there was a race of people who could easily be victimised, the whites who picked up on that oppression lowered themselves in a disquietingly ugly way. There was no honour, and no glory to be had for anyone. I wouldn’t want to teach this myself, never feeling quite comfortable on issues of race having grown up in a very white community myself. But as you say, genre-wise, it’s not doing anything so very different.

  2. Josh's Gravatar Josh
    April 12, 2011 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    Gary Phillips would be another black American noir novelist to look at—books like Perdition U.S.A..

  3. Rohan Maitzen's Gravatar Rohan Maitzen
    April 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    @litlove, I don’t know if I would read more of this series, if I were reading “just” for myself, only because my personal taste runs to a different style of mystery.

    @Josh, thanks for the tip! I’ll add Phillips to my to-get list.

  4. April 30, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    See _Clues_ 28.1 (2010) on “Chester Himes and His Legacy,” which includes some treatment of Mosley, but you should also look at Frankie Y. Bailey’s article on Rudolph Fisher (_The Conjure-Man Dies_, 1932) and Himes’s _A Rage in Harlem_. The issue also includes Himes’s first story featuring African American detectives, “He Knew.”

    Elizabeth Foxwell
    Managing Editor, _Clues: A Journal of Detection_ (the only US scholarly journal on mystery and detective fiction)
    http://elizabethfoxwell.blogspot.com

  5. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    April 30, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the further tips, Elizabeth! I have downloaded some other articles on Mosley but I haven’t done extensive searching–Clues is always a good place to check. A Rage in Harlem is the one Himes novel I’ve read–and I’ve never read another book quite like it, I have to say!

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