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Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins Mystery) Paperback – September 17, 2002
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"A suspenseful novel of human detection more than simply a detective novel....[Mosley is] a talented author with something vital to say about the distance between the black and white worlds, and with a dramatic way to say it." (The New York Times)
"Richly atmospheric...Devil in a Blue Dress honors the hard-boiled tradition of Hamett/Chandler/Cain in its story line line and attitude, but Mosley takes us down some mean streets that his spiritual predecessors never could have...A fast moving, entertaining story written with impressive style. This kind of book that leaves you yearning to read more about Easy Rawlins' adventures." (Los Angeles Times Book Review)
"The social commentary is sly, the dialogue is fabulous, the noir atmosphere so real you could touch it. A first novel? That what they say. Amazing. Smashing." (Cosmopolitan)
About the Author
Walter Mosley is the New York Times bestselling author of five Easy Rawlins mysteries: Devil in A Blue Dress, A Red Death, White Butterfly, Black Betty, and A Little Yellow Dog; three non-mystery novels, Blue Light, Gone Fishin', and R. L.'s Dream; two collections of stories featuring Socrates Fortlow, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, for which he received the Anisfield Wolf Award, and which was an HBO movie; and a nonfiction book, Workin' On The Chain Gang. Mosley is also the author of the Leonid McGill, and Fearless Jones mystery series, The Tempest Tales and Six Easy Pieces. He is a former president of the Mystery Writers of America, a founder of the PEN American Center Open Book Committee, and is on the board of directors of the National Book Awards. A native of Los Angeles, he now lives in New York City.
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However, Rawlins, who, it occurs to me, might well be characterized as experiencing post traumatic stress syndrome as a WWII vet, though nobody recognizes this possibility, soon realizes he has gotten more than he bargained for, as he finds himself entangled in a murder mystery, dealing with crooked, racist cops; ruthless politicians, and brutal thugs. He also comes to realize that Daphne Monet, the missing woman, is a key figure in the hotly contested upcoming LA mayoral race; she is the fiancée of a wealthy local blue blood, Todd Carter, who is one of the candidates.
This emotional, dark and gritty period piece, as well as launching the Rawlins series, introduced the menacing, though small of stature "Mouse" Alexander, psychotic old killer friend of Rawlins's, who would often reappear. The whodunit is racially charged, exploring the realities of being black in racist post-war LA., as well as a resonant portrait of its place and time, and the color line that people dared cross only at their peril.
The book's plot is multi-layered and complex. So much so that, even after repeatedly viewing the film based on it, and reading the book, both of which I love, and knowing who killed whom, I am never sure who killed whom ten minutes later. Some readers may dislike the book for its many characters and complex plot; its plentiful sex and violence, and use of the N-word, but I think it accurately reflects the world in which it is set. It makes race an equal influence (with money, power and connections) on the plot and the characters. It has always seemed to me that the conclusion of the book somewhat echoes Dashiell Hammett's great The Maltese Falcon. And I've always wondered about the possible influence of the 1966 song "Devil with a Blue Dress On," by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
The book, the series, which concluded in 2009, and Mosley's entire output, has clearly been influenced by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the universally respected LA-based authors of hardboiled mystery novels. Mosley, who also credits Graham Greene as an influence, has become a prominent American novelist. He has penned more than 33 books in a variety of genres, but is most known for his crime fiction, specifically this best selling historical Rawlins series; of the ten entries, all but two have a color in their titles. The novel and the series are important in black/ethnic detective fiction, as they focus on a protagonist who begins as a day laborer but becomes a detective. It's also notable that Rawlins, although an educated man, often falls into the Black English of his community when thinking, or in discussion with others.
Mosley's mother, Ella (née Slatkin), was a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor; his father, Leroy Mosley, was a WWII vet, and a black supervising custodian at a Los Angeles public school. (In later books of the Rawlins series, Mosley will give Rawlins this same day job). Mosley's parents tried to marry in 1951 but, although the union was legal in California where they lived, no one would give them a license. Mosley once took a writing course at City College in Harlem; one of his tutors there, the prize-winning Irish novelist Edna O'Brien, became a mentor to him and encouraged him, saying, "You're Black, Jewish, with a poor upbringing; there are riches therein". I have always thought DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS was unusually close to the author's bone; he'd never venture so close again. However, I can also recommend the deeply-felt Black Betty : Featuring an Original Easy Rawlins Short Story "Gator Green", about a black servant, and A Red Death : Featuring an Original Easy Rawlins Short Story "Silver Lining", about Jewish Holocaust survivors: both are powerful stuff.
Easy Rawlins trudges the hero's path, his goal to make enough money to hold onto his small home, to pay the monthly mortgage. He's a rebellious, proud and angry man which is why he loses his job at the plane factory despite his skills. It's difficult at first to figure out who is friend or foe, but a supposed friend hooks him up with a white crime boss - DeWitt Albright. He needs Easy to find a woman for a friend, the eponymous devil In a blue dress. With little alternative to meeting his mortgage payment, Easy takes on the job and gets sucked into a dark crowd of high rollers, low rollers, drinkers and criminals, many of whom he already knew from Houston, his home town.
It's surprising to read the anger against whites that Easy holds from a lifetime of insults and unfair dealings. Surprising because in mainstream books, those thoughts usually seem to be less sharp and more submerged. Not our hero. His fury is right on the surface.
In a story full of memorable characters (a lot of them) - Joppy, the bar owner; Mouse, a murderous friend from his past; Frank Green; Ronald White, the man with too many kids; in all, too many characters to name - each with a story that filled the book with the atmosphere and detail that the best novels have. Mosley did not set himself a simple task in his first book. He tore into it with all the thinking, ideas, and emotions he'd gathered to that point, and then peopled it with individualistic, colorful characters. (I could have used a listing in the front like those seen in nineteenth century novels.)
Of course, the most interesting character of all is Easy. Mosley ekes out his backstory in tantalizing drops. Let's just say he's got his issues.
I don't know why Daphne Monet, the devil, didn't move me. Even the surprise ending let me down, probably because the build up throughout the plot raced towards a climax that should have exploded, and fell short. But this first book by Mosley is a humbling read. To see what he's accomplished in his first outing sets a very high bar for any mystery writer.