Friday, 4 April 2014

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

Devil in a Blue Dress is an excellent hard-boiled mystery. It is also a fascinating examination of race and masculinities in late-1940s Los Angeles. That it manages to do both these things at the same time, seamlessly, is little short of breathtaking.

"Easy" Rawlins had just been fired from his job for not taking on extra hours when he was exhausted, when the local bartender offers him a chance at some easy money - enough for at least one month's payment on his mortgage. So he takes it on, trying to find a vanished blonde for a local bigwig, with a cold-eyed gangster as go-between. Along the way, bodies start to pile up, and Easy gets the feeling that he might be next. So he calls his psychopathic friend Mouse and asks for help - or hindrance, as the case may be. The blonde comes in and out of his life like a breath of perfume.

This is the story of how Easy became a private detective, which he certainly is not at the beginning of the story. He makes missteps, accidental good moves, stays silent, refuses to knuckle under, and at the end, decides this private detective business might just be for him, after all. No boss to answer to, anyway.

Devil in a Blue Dress is acute about racism, and the varieties that Easy runs into along the way, from outright violence to condescension to disbelief that Easy won't do exactly as he's told to the hidden racism of a confiding rich man. The web that this weaves around him is ever present, and yet, through that, Easy defines himself by his own masculinity, by the voice in the back of his head that tells him what he needs to do to both survive and to continue to think of himself as a man. He'll let things slide, but he won't bend his knee, and his negotiation and assessment of different circumstances are fascinating.

Most good noir has something the private dick can't walk away from. In the Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade has to do something about the death of his partner. For Easy, it's his property, the land he owns, and which he will not leave behind. The symbolic importance of property to Easy was both convincing and gripping.

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