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


  1. Excellent review (as expected), Rachel! Walter Mosley remains one of those writers that makes you sit up and concentrate on what he puts down on the page. It's unexpected but nonetheless interesting, even if the characters are challenging the reader's expectations. But then again, it purposeful. Easy Rawlins is one unique character -- like Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor, he can be exasperating at times. But as you say, he "gets under your skin", and they are both marvelous, vexing creations. The reader (at least this one) can't help but want to revisit them. So, too, is the community the author weaves together (and apart).

    Still, you bring a good point about Daphne here. I think the title more aptly captures her in the book than in the film adaptation. She is more devil-like and less sympathetic on the page compared to her film counterpart (something the film director changed, but to be discussed over here). The character of Mouse is something, isn't it? But, ultimately I think he makes Easy a more interesting, conflicted character as you move through the series.

    And I think you're on to something regarding the point where the protag (and especially the P.I.) is required to jump in bed with an attractive woman. Thanks so much for giving this book a try, Rachel.

  2. Mosley has always been something of a mixed bag for me. I enjoyed the first few Easy Rawlins books but Easy ran out of steam for me about the time of A Little Yellow Dog, which I think was the fourth book. Later I was very taken with another of Mosley's protagonists, Fearless Jones. I've yet to try his newest series.
    I did like the character of Mouse quite a bit, mostly because he was just so unpredictable. I always thought of Mouse as Hawk to Easy's Spenser, but a Hawk you had to be really careful of.
    As to the sex scenes, that did seem to be something of a convention in hard boiled mystery fiction of the time.

    On an unrelated subject, Rachel, if you're wondering what became of my review of Crais' The Sentry, I started the book, and rather to my surprise found that I wasn't enjoying it. I put it aside to try again later, just in case I was simply in an unreceptive mood. That does happen. I don't know though. Pike seemed to be acting very 'un-Pike' like in the first few chapters, so we'll see what I think when I come back to it.

  3. lp13 - I agree completely about the community. I like when an author takes the time to illuminate the community from which a character springs. When done subtlely it's very obvious how it informs the actions of the character, but in a good way, not in a lazy, over-writing kind of way.

    I felt Daphne was definitely a different character in the movie than the book. I remember the first time I saw the movie I wondered where the title came from because it didn't match.

    You and Charles both have me thinking I need to pay more attention to Mouse in the series. I'm willing to concede that maybe I'm short-changing him.

    Re: the genre sex scene convention... I should clarify that I have no problem with sex scenes it's just that they don't always arise naturally by way of the story events but literally because they are supposed to be there. I refuse to be so condescending as to take the perspective of 'these are guys and they are always hot for it so any hole will do' but it seems quite a few someones want me to buy into the stereotype. Pass! I would imagine anyone would be up for a nice, intimate and satisfying tryst but when it comes out of left field I just sit there going, 'why is this happening?'

    Charles - Looks like I'm not the only one noticing the sex scene convention (added some more thoughts on it just above)

    The only other Easy book I've read so far is Little Scarlet which is past Little Yellow Dog. I quite liked it (actual LA events depicted and I always dig history in my books), and I've read Fearless Jones and really liked that one, too. Maybe you saw what I was saying to Michael but it looks like I need to give Mouse another chance. I'll withold judgement until I've read a few more books.

    And you read my mind! I have been wondering about your Sentry review but I wasn't sure if you'd be too keen on my pesting you about it. :) I actually sailed right through it because the pacing worked so well for me. Also, the very un-Pike things had me wondering if there was going to be some sort of reveal that would explain it all. I don't want to make too many comments and spoil anything but I do agree about the odd Pike behaviors. When/if you do get back to it I'll be very interested in your final verdict and will include some comments on what was happening that bothered me. If interested, on a recent reading roundup of mine some comments were made addressing this about The Sentry. They are slightly spoilerish, ye be warned.

  4. Nah, feel free to pester me any time, Rachel. I've learned that sometimes I'm just not in the mood for a particular type of book and it's best to put it aside and come back later, especially if it's a book by an author I've enjoyed in the past. I know this about me. So I'll come at the latest Pike-Fest at a later time, but yeah, I'd best stay clear of discussions and forums.

  5. Regarding the sex scene convention, for this genre it can appear to be on an author's checklist to include in their work. And that can be oft-putting -- e.g., Elvis Cole bedding both the client and the client's friend in his THE MONKEY'S RAINCOAT debut. That always seems to garner some comment from friends who I recommend the series to. But, Crais threw out the checklist soon enough (STALKING THE ANGEL) and brought it to a level that made it quite satisfying.

    The historical perspective of Mosley is a strength of the Easy Rawlins series, I think. The events from one community's viewpoint versus another's really adds an additional layer of context. It readily causes one to question the conventional wisdom of notable events (especially in my neck of the woods). As always, it's great to get into another joint post, Rachel. Thanks very much.

  6. And my thanks to you, Michael! I'm looking forward to the next one.

    You know I've never thought about the idea of "conventional wisdom" as it applies to notable events but that's a very good way of putting it. Just as "conventional wisdom" often is misleading or downright wrong, so our interpretation of current and past events can be greatly colored by the lens through which it is presented. Very interesting observation!