Devil In A Blue Dress

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.

14 thoughts on “Devil In A Blue Dress

  1. I’ve been meaning to reread Devil in a Blue Dress for a while, Litlove, so I appreciate the reminder and your invocation of the novel’s “murkier moral universe.” Have fond but very distant memories of the book although I can’t say that I care for the garish cover that’s pictured in your post. I enjoy your blog, by the way, and I was tickled by your admission in this post that you prefer genteel crime fiction of the vicar-stabbing variety. Ha ha, maybe that’s an Old World vs. a New World taste? Cheers!

  2. I don’t know, Richard, this American likes her locked-room murdered-vicar plots as well as the next girl!

    But Litlove, I also love the Easy Rawlins mysteries, so thanks for reminding me of them. I’ve mostly listened to them on audiobook (don’t remember whether this is one of the ones I’ve listened to or not), and very much agree that the sense of place and uneasy racial tension is very well evoked. I’ll have to check out some more of these audiobooks at some point…

  3. This review made me quite certain that were I to read this book, I too would feel white, female, and British … which would be a lot of fun, so I’m going to order it from Amazon right away.

  4. I tend to return to nice cozy mysteries as well though I don’t mind a little grittiness occasionally. This sounds like it verges on the uncomfortable, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all sometimes. Mosley has always been on the periphery for me when it comes to reading crime novels, but I should really give him a try. I tend to stick with tried and true or well within my comfort zones, but it is good to be exposed to other vistas now and again.

  5. Eek, I’ll probably pass on this since I read so little detective fiction as it is and this doesn’t seem to suit me, but I am curious about Mosley and his writing of 1940s and 50s America. I can see why his work has been studied.

  6. Totally unrelated to your post (except the title), when I first met my husband, he and his college buddy dressed up for Halloween as devils in blue dresses – mind you, this was almost 25 years ago and I’m sure they didn’t know about this book but rather the song. In fact, I now have the song playing in my head!

  7. I like my mysteries Golden Age. Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon is about a gritty as I want to get. Like Danielle, I tend to stay in my comfort zone. Since there’s so much out there in my comfort zone, I would probably pass on this one. I’m glad you posted on it. I know it’s not for me.

  8. Richard – welcome to the blog and thank you for commenting! I am definitely more golden age in my crime fiction tastes than modern, although I appreciated what Mosley was doing and thought he did it very well. The cover looks a lot better in the flesh than it does in the little image, and I hope very much that if you reread this one, it brings you all the pleasure you remember, and more.

    Emily – I love listening to crime fiction on audio book, and I can imagine that the right voice on Mosley’s novels would make for a fantastic listening experience. What a good idea! If I read him again, I should look out for an audio version.

    David – LOL!!!! I want a blow-by-blow account of THAT particular experience.🙂

    Danielle – I’m always impressed by the range of crime fiction you read – I’ve seen you do the full spectrum – crime from all kinds of different countries as well as different styles. Mosley is definitely worth a go – try him as a library book first and see what you think. I’d love to hear your impressions.

    verbivore – actually, he handles the racism issues really well. He makes it all very complicated, very ambivalent, and I felt that was most impressive.

    Care – what a great way to meet your husband! I didn’t know there was a song about this – I’ll have to find it online.🙂

    Grad – ah, sometimes I read ’em so you don’t have to.🙂

    Stefanie – if he’s fond of noir then I’d certainly suggest giving this a go. It’s very well done – and I’d love to know what he thinks of it.

  9. I like my mysteries bloodless and vicarful but your review made me curious. If I was a faster reader, I would take this one on. As it is I’ll remember it and sometimes when I want something completely different, I’ll give it a try.

  10. I’m not sure noir and violence is my thing, but this book does sound interesting from a cultural standpoint. It would probably be interesting to discuss in my mystery/crime group.

  11. My favourite of his was A Little Yellow Dog. Loved it, partly because of the way in which he deals with the violence between groups in society. It’s something I understand and experience so it made the book feel real to me. I do love the vicarage style murder mysteries but I read them for their calm, their sense of societal order. I read them as a way of feeling hope. Funny that when I think about it.

  12. Poor old vicar, you are such cruel ladies. I truly enjoyed Mosley when I read him. The atmosphere… I enjoyed it even so much that I didn’t read any other although I got some. Maybe I should see if I still like it. I liked the movie too. Denzel Washington is a nice Easy Rawlins. I don’t think you would enjoy the series The Wire. Was thinking for quite a while about your comment that it made you feel white, female and British… I never read or saw anything that made me feel like that… (the British part would have to be exchanged of course).

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