Fri
Jul 8 2016 1:30pm

Review: Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley is the 1st book in the famed Easy Rawlins series.

Since his introduction in 1990, Easy Rawlins has been the star of more than a dozen novels by MWA grandmaster Walter Mosley. In his debut outing, Devil In A Blue Dress, Rawlins arrives fully formed.

At its heart, Devil is a classic find-the-girl mystery. What sets it apart, and what garnered Mosley the praise and attention for his debut novel twenty-six years ago, is the setting in a post-WWII Los Angeles and the pressure cooker race relations surrounding the action. 

Easy Rawlins is a proud and unapologetic black man, at a time when he and his friends are being marginalized and ghettoized in an increasingly stratified late 1940s L.A. When he takes a job working for a white man to find the missing girl in the titular blue dress, we see the world through Easy’s eyes, where rich and powerful white men are as dangerous and mysterious as black characters had typically been portrayed at the time. The suspicion of race cuts both ways in Easy’s world.

Of course, it doesn’t help his attitude when the double crosses and misdirects start piling up soon.

Rawlins is a strong character, and it is easy to see how he quickly built into a series lead with a big following. Mosley has since branched out to different series and standalones, but Easy Rawlins keeps drawing Mosley and readers back, more than two decades later. 

I’ll admit to not being a huge fan of traditional mysteries like this. There’s a bit too much stasis for me, as clues are slowly disseminated for the sake of pacing out a novel-length mystery. But, Mosley keeps the action moving with the characters, if not in the actual plot. 

Early on, Rawlins references his childhood friend Mouse, and it’s easy to guess he will make an appearance before too long.

Mouse is a fan-favorite character, and a real scene stealer in the 1995 film adaptation of Devil In A Blue Dress (the only film appearance for Rawlins so far). Mouse seems to be a part of the plot so Mosley can keep Easy Rawlins from turning tough guy.

Easy is not one drawn to violence. He’ll use it if he has to, but he doesn’t lead with his fists the way some classic P.I.’s do. By bringing Mouse into the proceedings, Mosley can still get some information out in the tried-and-true beatings, threats, and killings mode of crime fiction, all while keeping his main character’s hands relatively clean. 

Mosley doesn’t seem to be interested in creating a character in the vein of a Mike Hammer-style private dick. His Easy Rawlins is more heroic in the classic sense. Whether that is a choice of mass-market reader’s sensitive appetites for such violence, or if Mosley wants to keep Rawlins far, far away from being portrayed as a typical fictional African American thug, the result is a character we can root for and stay behind in book after book.

And, Easy is well rounded and flawed. The prospect of poverty looms over him and is what forces him into his new life of investigating. His race is front and center in many of his dealings. He has doubts, insecurities, and falls victim to his own heart (and libido) from time to time. All of this serves to make him a fully-fleshed character designed for longevity in a series.

Devil has the tried and true red herrings, misdirections, dead ends, and desperate moments of classic mystery fiction. Mosley certainly wasn't lacking for an involving plot his first time out. As the introduction for a major character in American mystery fiction, Devil In A Blue Dress isn’t dated or any less prescient today than it was in 1990. And, because Easy Rawlins has become so iconic, I’d say it’s pretty high on the must read list for classic P.I. fiction lovers.

It’s surprising that Easy Rawlins hasn’t been the subject of more films. Denzel Washington’s take on the character was great, and the film, directed by the supremely talented Carl Franklin, who should also be given more chances in Hollywood, is a success on every level. Certainly, Don Cheadle became known to Hollywood with his portrayal of Mouse as every bit the amoral psycho he is on the page.

Easy would surely make a good TV series character, too. But, until that happens, we’ll have to settle for the twelve other Easy Rawlins novels, which bring the action all the way into the late 1960s. And, to get started, Devil In A Blue Dress is a great place to begin.

 

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Eric Beetner is the author of more than a dozen novels including RumrunnersThe Devil Doesn't Want MeDig Two Graves, Run For The Money, andThe Year I Died Seven Times. His award-winning stories have appeared in over twenty anthologies including Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns, which he created and edited. He is co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head, Borrowed Trouble, and Over Their Heads, and co-wrote The Backlist and The Short List with author Frank Zafiro. He lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts the Noir At The Bar reading series. For more visit ericbeetner.com
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2 comments
1. William E. Wallace
Absolutely a great novel. I agree that it is remarkable that more films haven't been made featuring Easy, particularly since Denzel Washington has subsequently played a series of hard-boiled but ultra cool African-American protagonists in the Rawlins mode (Man on Fire, The Equalizer, Book of Eli.) You may want to see if you can find a vid of "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned," (1998) a made for TV movie with Laurence Fishburne as Socrates Fortlow, an ex-con trying to go straight in a severely bent Los Angeles. Socco is very much in the Easy Rawlins mode. Mosley wrote a hell of a book and a very nice adapted screenplay adaptation for the movie.
David Cranmer
2. DavidCranmer
Very good piece, Eric. A modern classic. And thank you, William Wallace. I will look for the Fishburne film. Never knew it existed!
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