Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley: A review

The writing of Walter Mosley harkens back to masters like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James Cain. The best of noir.

This book was Mosley's introduction of his character, Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins. We meet Easy in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. He is a black man who had been raised in Houston and he had joined the army to fight Nazis during the war. He spent much of it sitting behind a typewriter, but when he had the chance, he volunteered to go with Gen. George Patton's Third Army into the heart of Europe. He fought his way through the rest of the war, including at the Battle of the Bulge, and returned home to Houston, but like many African-Americans in the South during that period, he found the atmosphere stifling and chose to move on. In Easy's case, he moved to Los Angeles, along with many others from Houston's Fifth Ward. As we meet Easy, we find that many in his circle of acquaintances in LA are former Houstonians.

I felt an immediate empathy for Easy Rawlins because of the Houston connection. His descriptions of neighborhoods and streets were places I hear about frequently. No doubt they've changed in the last seventy years, but they are still there. Moreover, there was the Patton's Army connection. My father, too, was in the Third Army and I grew up listening to stories about the Battle of the Bulge and the other lesser known battles that he fought in. As a result, Rawlins seemed very familiar to me.

Easy has just been fired from his job at an aircraft factory when we meet him. His white boss thought the uppity black man was not showing him sufficient deference. Without a source of income, Easy stands to lose the small house he is so proud of since he won't be able to pay the mortgage. 

I loved Mosley's description of that little house and lot, because it revealed so much of Easy's character. He takes pride in the order that he keeps in the house and the care that he gives the plantings around the house - the fruit trees, the perennials with their bright blooms, even the pot of African violets on the porch. This is a man after my own heart.

So, Easy has to come up with a way to earn some money fast. He goes for a drink in a friend's bar and in walks fate in the portly form of a white man dressed all in white. It seems that Easy's friend has paved the way for this man to offer him a job. The two talk and the man offers him a substantial amount of money to find a woman. She is a blonde named Daphne Monet and she has a real penchant for black jazz clubs and, incidentally, for black men.

And just like that Easy Rawlins begins his career as a private investigator.

He soon finds himself knee deep in a web of lies and murder, harassed by the police and threatened by sociopathic villains. Easy is not a violent man and he feels himself a bit out of his depth and needing someone to watch his back. He phones home, to Houston, and gets in touch with the girlfriend of one of his former running buddies, Raymond "Mouse" Alexander. He's not sure if Mouse will get the message, but just in time, he does turn up.

Whereas Easy is a pacifist, Mouse does not shy from violence and he likes Easy well enough to be just the back-watcher he needs.

Just like those earlier noir novels, this one's plot winds and wriggles around like a snake in hot ashes. So many complications, so many interconnections, and so many lies. It soon becomes clear that virtually none of these characters, besides the protagonist himself, is to be trusted.

Mosley's writing is really excellent and truly did remind me of the best of the noir masters that I have read. It makes me really happy to know that he has produced thirteen (and counting) more of these Easy Rawlins tales. And they are all just sitting there waiting for me to enjoy!

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


  

5 comments:

  1. Wow! I like Easy too! :-) I'll keep my eyes peeled for your reviews of the next installments in this series.

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  2. For some reason the only Walter Mosley I have read is Little Scarlet, a later volume in his Easy Rawlins series. His voice and style, while as you say it owes much to those early noir guys, is so distinctive that I remember the book vividly and feel like I have read lots of his books. I did see the movie made from this one. Denzel does a great Easy!

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    1. I haven't seen the movie but I'm enjoying imagining Denzel in the role!

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