There are certain books that can make me feel either very white, very female or very British; Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress made me feel all three. In the 1990s. Mosley came along and rewrote the hardboiled crime novel from a perspective steeped in racial tensions. His Los Angeles is a segregated city, where white men rule in brutal authority and black men suffer and hate; this novel is set in 1948, after the Second World War had forced the social incorporation of a number of marginal castes, among them women and ethnic minorities, and the return to peace had brought an uneasy resettling of the ranks. The main protagonist is Easy Rawlins, a man who has learned through warfare how to be a ‘killing machine’ but who chooses, always, the non-violent approach, something that sets him apart from his people but can’t quite gain him acceptance among the white overlords. This makes him a perfect person for detective investigation, however, existing outside all the orthodox conventions, internally conflicted and essentially sympathetic; and the fact he never takes the easy way out leads to all sorts of intriguing plot complications. In Devil in a Blue Dress he takes on his first ‘case’, when he’s asked to search for a beautiful white woman who has run off with a suitcase of someone else’s money. It’s a simple enough premise but it leads him into the violent underbelly of the urban world, where no man is to be trusted and danger waits him at every turn.
I should say straight out that this isn’t normally my sort of thing. I’ve read all kinds of crime and my preference remains for the sort of situation where vicars get stabbed in their wood paneled studies with their paper knives. Reading about quite shocking racism in a lawless, cruel America of sixty years ago gives me an odd sense of dislocation and spectatorship (what do I know about any of this?). But it’s clear that Mosley’s books deserve their status as potential classics – the timing of the plot is perfect, and the dialect that all the characters speak is really beautifully done (and there are so many ways to get dialect wrong). In fact, when I idly looked the novel up online to see if there were any reviews available, I was directed instead to a series of study guide sites and academic articles. I read one of the articles about Foucauldian tropes of power and knowledge and it was pretty good, if compromised a tad by the adverts that peppered its pages, offering to Find Me A Black Man Already. This, it seems, is what progress amounts to: a liberal society served by a tasteless, ethic-free advertising agency, flinging its goods at me on the off chance I might be buying. I don’t think Easy Rawlins would be impressed.
Not that Easy Rawlins is easily impressed by anything. It’s his powers of discernment that set him apart, and his desire to be different, better, less animalistic than he is expected to be. This is no easy task in the society he inhabits, where he is laid off from work because he refuses the slave labour thrust upon him. Rawlins doesn’t ask for much, but as the novel progresses so he increasingly demands a bit of respect, and it’s this initial act of standing up for himself that puts him in the financial dire straits that lead to him taking on the search for Daphne Monet. All at once, the people Easy knows, who hang out in illegal bars and liquor stores and whose violence he is already aware of, take on new shades of danger. It’s not the hired hit man or the representative of the criminal underclass who has to be both searched for and evaded in this hardboiled novel, no, it’s Easy’s own set who are mixed up in the affair because they are all violent and desperate. The brutality in this novel is a truly unpleasant affair because it is so casual; the black man of 1948 will kill anyone, just anyone, if he is drunk, or angry, or threatened, or in need of cash, or bored. There’s no such thing as an allegiance or loyalty. Easy is placed in an uncomfortably ambivalent position in relation to this; he knows how his own system functions, but he doesn’t want to be part of it. For this reason, an old friend of his, the psychotic Mouse, has to be dragged in as his alter ego to do the necessary killing when required. Mouse will kill without a second’s thought, but when he finds out that Easy feels guilty for being mixed up with him, then he instantly agrees to act only when told to. Not that Easy believes him, but this is as good as it gets for morality.
You might think that this is not doing the black man any particular favours; only of course the white man gets off no better. In fact the examples of whites in the novel come off worse because they have power and authority and simply abuse it because they can. All in all, a climate of oppression makes all men ugly and repulsive in their behaviour (and it IS a world of men we’re dealing with here – despite the iconic woman in her blue dress), although as far as crime fiction goes, it makes for a high body count and a lot of tension as the reader really feels the relentless menace that Easy has to work under. It also made for a slightly confusing conclusion, as murderers didn’t exactly stand out against their fellow men, and a much murkier moral universe than is usually the case. I admired it as a book, though, as it kept me reading and thoroughly engaged, even though it really wasn’t my thing. So if you like your crime noir and violent, I would think you’d love it.