Monday, February 28, 2011

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

Title: Devil in a Blue Dress
Author: Walter Mosley
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Comp. (1990)

Michael (now officially posting from It Rains... You Get Wet) and I are serving up another joint post wherein I will review the novel and Michael will review its movie adaptation.

You can get to Michael's film review of Devil in a Blue Dress by clicking here.

Devil in a Blue Dress is Mosley's first Easy Rawlins Mystery in which we are introduced to Easy, a young, black man in late 40s L.A. who was recently laid off. His mortgage payment is looming so, against his better judgment, he accepts the job of looking for a white woman called Daphne Monet. She is known to frequent bars in black neighborhoods and the white man looking for her is disinclined to participate in such a conspicuous search.

From page one Mosley makes it clear that this is not going to be just another mystery/thriller to be paged through at breakneck speed to quickly reach the conclusion. Certainly one could read it this way if s/he chose but the tone that is set immediately makes one pause and contemplate the extra layer Mosley brings to the novel.

When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948
I had spent five years with white men, and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself. I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was.

This passage illuminates quite a bit of Easy's history but not much of his character or current circumstances, and nothing of the mystery in which he will become embroiled. However, Mosley has deftly stripped all motivation down to simple survival, thus illustrating the ties that bind all humankind, but then he proceeds to use the story's backdrop as an example of the way we build arbitrary societal frameworks. This is not always smoothly done, nevertheless it is always interestingly done and makes the novel rich from the get-go.

Easy's motivation becomes a bit confused as the story progresses (for this reader anyway) but at the outset his great love affair with his home is easily understood as the impetus he needs to accept dubious work for enough money to cover the mortgage. In fact, this might have been one of my favorite aspects of the book and his character. It's easy enough to relate to someone devoted to independence and easy to understand the care and love he brings to his home. I did have to laugh at this aside:

And there was another thing.
DeWitt Albright made me a little nervous... But I was a big man too. And, like most young men, I never liked to admit that I could be dissuaded by fear.


As Easy begins his search for Monet, it becomes clear that the web of this mystery reaches beyond Easy's transplanted community of Black Americans from Houston. (This being another cool thing that Mosley brought to the book: there is the L.A. community, the transplants from Houston within this community and then the added layer of Monet being a white woman and outsider to the communities.) It also becomes clear that his initial hesitation was warranted when the bodies start piling up. As he gets deeper in, though, his ability to bring the thing to resolution starts to become personal. He catches the PI bug, actually, and there's a clear point where you know he won't turn back and that his future will include more investigations.

Mosley's ability to bring the reader right into a character's emotional state was a highlight of the book (One great passage was: "My tongue grew a full beard and I gagged."). This aspect reminded me of why I will always admire Stephen King's writing even if I don't care for his books. I'm always impressed with writers who can find just the right words to bring home how a character feels in any given situation. Devil in a Blue Dress is even more deeply affecting due to its racial tension. It's never easy to read stories in which one group feels another group has no - or even any right to - personal dignity. Easy is keenly aware of the necessity of judging situations accurately to remain safe (though his rash decisions can often make one forget this). This is seen in several encounters:

"You already got a problem, boy."
"Listen, all she said was hi. That's all I said too." But I was thinking to myself, Why the hell do I have to answer to you?


He waved at me impatiently and, to my shame, I flinched.

I can't pretend to know what it would feel like to have to weigh almost every encounter or put my personal safety at risk but Mosley is able to bring these encounters to life in such a way that makes it impossible for any reader to not feel the kind of disgust that lodges deep in the gut.

For all the praise that I can heap on the book, I was still not wholly won over. As I hinted above the characterization can be awkward at times and Monet, integral to the resolution of the story, never became someone I was interested in. Easy has a very strong response to her and the truth about her background makes the situation come clear at the end but I still never really cared for her. More detrimental to my enjoyment was that I didn't really care what happened to or with her. You're reading that right, I didn't really care how things concluded. Not so good a thing in a mystery. Also, the existence of the character of Mouse sort of rubs me the wrong way literature-wise. I like it when characters are faced with hard decisions but when you have The Badass who will pretty much do anything that character takes away the hard choices from the protag and forces the issue. Ok, fine, plots need to move along and if protags act too badly then we can't like them as much but I felt Mouse's fundamental nature and actions took away moments of growth from Easy.

Despite these shortcomings Easy gets under your skin. He's a great character in that I don't like everything he does. He challenged me to rethink situations and to examine why it was that his actions made me uncomfortable. In one moment I could be rooting for him and in the next completely exasperated. That's a bold and refreshing thing to do with a protagonist and it makes me want to read more in the series to see how he develops. As the novel progresses he becomes more determined but not necessarily more brave. He's a naturally fearful man and that doesn't leave him. A good dose of stubbornness is probably the secret to his success. I'm curious to see if this remains a central part of his character throughout the series. I imagine that no matter where his road leads he will remember the words Albright said to him at the beginning:

"Easy, walk out your door in the morning and you're mixed up in something. The only thing you can really worry about is if you get mixed up to the top or not."

So if you're a mystery-lover I think you'll enjoy getting mixed up with Easy, and if not you might enjoy the social background to the story, but it might be that it's when the series really hits its stride that the average reader will become more interested.

And in case you haven't already been, here's the link again for the movie review!

Quick question re mystery genre: was there at some point in the genre's publishing past a word count that could not be passed before a sexual act involving the protag occurred? As I sift through titles from the 70s/80s/early 90s it's really starting to feel that way.

(Off to discuss the movie... see you there!)

rating: 3 of 5 stars

ETA: COMMENTS CLOSED due to SPAMbots. SPAMjerks more like...

Coming up next:
Jack's Return Home and its movie adaptation Get Carter

Links to previous joint posts:
Falling Angel
The Lathe of Heaven
The Princess Bride
A Scanner Darkly
The Children of Men
The Minority Report

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Happening (2008), or Cereal Would Have Been Better

Title: The Happening
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Studio: 20th Century Fox

I've often said that "I'd watch Marky Mark eat cereal" to make it abundantly clear that I'd watch the man do anything just so's I could watch him. Well, M. Night kindly put that to the test with The Happening. Watching Mr. Wahlberg eat cereal definitely would have been better. Infinitely better. Indescribably better. I have seen some bad movies in my time but this has got to be the worst. If I run my Bottom 5 through my head I can almost always find some redeeming quality - some small bit of movie making that wasn't a failure - but The Happening actually fails on every level of movie making. Holy damn it was bad!

A Summary: Plants start killing people. Science teachers know all and are, without dispute (or, as I prefer, "beyond contestation"), the most qualified persons to lead any and all groups to safety.

Now, it must be said, that I have a great admiration for science teachers. One of my oldest and dearest friends is a science teacher, my science teachers (even the one that gave me detention) were one and all pretty darn good and interested in getting us students thinking about the world scientifically. However, the notion that any one of them would be better equipped for navigating a world with killer plants than anyone but the world's foremost plant scientists/toxicologists/biochemists is as nonsensical as, well, The Happening. But, whatever, Marky Mark was the most good-looking person in the film so naturally he is the most reasonable person to start listening to.

I'm not sure what the general direction was for the actors (probably something like, "Could you please channel your inner rock for an appropriate level of emotional expression?") but I have to assume that M. Night's comments to Zooey Deschanel went something like this:

"Cut, cut, cut! For shit's sake, Zooey, not stupid enough! If you please, increase the blank look in your eyes, hang your mouth open just so (demonstrates), and do just a little better at communicating the fact that you have not two brain cells to rub together."

Seriously! Did the actors have some secret debts they had to pay, and quick? Did they not look at this script? Have they not seen an M. Night movie since The Sixth Sense? What does this guy have to do to get fired? There are so many talented people in the world begging to work for free and yet M. Night continues to get paid! This is amazing to me. What secrets does he know?

Some gems from the script:

"Stay ahead of the wind."

Hunh? Does the power of the yellow sun suddenly extend past Kryptonians?

"Plants have the power to do this. They release co-transporters into the air."

I'm not kidding. That's an actual line! It's certainly news to me that plants release co-transporters into the air but I won't quibble overmuch (I'm not a plant biologist) at this plot device. However, if they do, what of it? What does this mean? Why is it even said? Co-transporters of what? And how are they then absorbed into a body to co-transport anything in a meaningful way?

"I'm talking to a plastic plant."

This I include as it's probably the only line that fit reasonably with what was going on.

"Primordial bacteria. ... It just appeared in the water."

Really? That's your explanation? It "just appeared." Thank goodness this guy wasn't my high school science teacher.

"Can we talk calmly for a minute. You see, I'm a teacher."

Again, not a thing do I have against teachers, but how is this an explanation of anything? Seriously, the man is convinced that any question can be answered with "I'm a teacher" and all will fall into place.

Dr Musacha sent The Editing Room's abridged script of The Happening my way and I thought these two bits were hilariously spot on:

Hey, a [sic] there’s a suicide epidemic in New York. People think terrorists are releasing some toxin in the air that’s causing people to kill themselves.

Awesome, disasters in movies tend to serve little purpose other than to unite families with problems. Perhaps this can fix my rocky marriage.

You see, it seems that plants became tired of the way we treat our environment, so they started releasing a deadly toxin.

Why didn’t they just stop producing oxygen?

Well where’s the unwatchable pile of garbage of a film in that?

rating: 1 of 5 stars

Friday, February 18, 2011


I found out today that one of my colleagues reads romance and has never read Laura Kinsale. I am to loan her a book so she can try out the Kinsale awesomeness. Oh holy fuck! I don't know that I can handle this! How do I choose? In my hands is the opportunity to be responsible for someone's first moment of Kinsale Joy and I just don't know where to start.

Is it with The Shadow and the Star over which I have been obsessing all week? Is it The Dream Hunter which I have recently re-read to try to make my peace with Zenia? Is it Flowers From the Storm, my own first foray into Kinsale's backlist? And what about For My Lady's Heart with its Middle English and Ruck and one of the most intricate heroines of all time? Or shall I start her off with something lighter like Lessons in French?

Do you see??? How is a person to handle this situation? Kinsale fans, Help! Which title do you suggest for someone's first time?

(It should be noted that, contrary to how it must appear, sgwordy receives absolutely no royalties from the sale of Laura Kinsale's books. This is just straight-up, hard-core admiration.)

(Poss is only fair to also mention that some term it obsession but, really, enthusiasm in the modern, digital age is so misunderstood.)

ETA  24 Feb:

Ok, folks, I made my decision. (Speaking of, when I told Dr M about this request he said, "Does she realize how paralyzing this decision will be for you?" ha! I am so transparent.)  I handed over Midsummer Moon and Flowers From the Storm. Yes, I know, these were not recommended so what the shit was I asking for recommendations for if I wasn't even going to take them? Looks like The Shadow and the Star and Lessons in French were winning the rec race but, as I commented, I wasn't ready to let TSATS out of the house just now and we deal with livestock related issues so much at work that I wasn't sure my co-worker was quite in a place to laugh over bulls in the kitchen, etc. BUT I did want to let her choose between a lighter or heavier book. She loves math so that made me lean towards FFTS. And with no LiF, only MM was left for the lighter side. I saw her well into FFTS at lunch today so we'll see how it goes. Thanks again to everyone who left their feedback. I'll definitely be using it again because another co-worker came by and said, "Whatcha reading?" and then I had to go all gushy over Kinsale again and she requested a book to read. Oh, the magic, it is spreading!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Birthday Bone

Chang O enjoying her bone.

Cubone helping her celebrate.

Happy Valentine's Day

sgwordy: I guess re-gifting sex toys is out, huh?

Dr M: Yeah, I think that'd be considered tacky. (Pause.) Especially if they're tacky.

(While having nothing to do with this most ridiculous of "holidays" this exchange did actually take place today. *snicker*)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

History is Astounding

I love learning about people who, with very little fanfare, have shaped my nation. As a woman towards the end of the show said (paraphrasing): he was a behind the scenes person and you don't hear much about behind the scenes people but they are necessary if you want to get anything done.

Click here to learn about Bayard Rustin and check out the other great pages at State of the Re:Union.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Reading Roundup

I'm currently cycling through some meh fiction titles but my reading over the last six weeks has included some enjoyable stuff. A few of them were review books so I'll post links to those later but below is a little roundup of what I've read recently and haven't posted about:

Title: Dark Alliance
Author: Gary Webb
Publisher: Seven Stories Press (1998)

I guess I did post a bit about the stranger than fiction aspect of this topic but I'm back to say again that this is a book worth reading. It's hard to know where to begin with how great this book is but if you've ever wondered just what was going on with the Contras, or just where the heck all that cocaine came (comes) from, when and how crack became popular (and how it was dealt so successfully in South Central L.A. and other inner cities), the value our government places on life, or how little you can depend on mass media then this is the book for you.

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Title: One for the Money
Author: Janet Evanovich
Publisher: Scribner (1994)

This is one of my picks for the Criminal Plots Reading Challenge so a review will be coming whenever I get around to it.

rating: coming soon(er or later)

Title: These Old Shades
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publisher: reprinted by Sourcebooks Casablanca (2009)

Ah, Heyer, how you comfort me. This is set before Devil's Cub and is more serious in tone than my favorite Heyers but I still enjoyed it. I also re-read April Lady just cuz.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Title: Kafka on the Shore
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Vintage (2006)

This is very well written but a little outside what I like to read. I got through about half of it. Let's just say "metaphysical" and sgwordy do not often spend time together. It's not that I don't get it, it's that I just don't care. My book club members really liked it though so there's something here for someone, just not me.

rating: DNF

Title: The Sentry
Author: Robert Crais
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons (2011)

The latest Joe Pike novel and worth a read if you're into the series. I had some quibbles that I'm too lazy to list here but they definitely kept it in the realm of 'enjoyable because I like Crais and Pike' and not shooting to the top of my RC favorites list. I'm curious what other RC fans thought of this one...

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Title: The Heretic's Wife
Author: Brenda Rickman Vantrease
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (2010)

I'm all over historical fiction that takes a little known historical figure and creates a life for her/him but this did not grab me. I never really got that much into any of the characters and felt everyone's ending was pretty obvious from the get-go (and, no, I didn't know the history beforehand:).

And I remain irritated at all these titles about someone's wife or daughter. They have names, you know!

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Title: Bury Me Deep
Author: Megan Abbott
Publisher: Simon and Schuster (2009)

A much better job of taking historical figures and creating a story for them. In this case, there was a lot more information available regarding the actual people but this story is still very much Abbott's. I especially liked how this was not only thriller/noir but also very much contained a psychodrama theme that was well done.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

What have you been reading lately?