Walter Mosley – Devil in a Blue Dress


(A 1990 novel, set in 1947, named after a 1964 song – no moving pictures so you can play this as you read the following)

If you’re quick, we have a second copy, a bit beaten-up, for 50p in our sale. The state of the book tells you that it hasn’t languished unread. It was first published in 1990 and was both Mosley’s debut and that of his most famous protagonist, Easy Rawlins. By 1995 it had been made into a film, which is why Denzel’s on the cover of our two copies (vintage 90s in a worrrrld… trailer voice-over). The book’s less orthodox. It’s the tale of how Rawlins accidentally winds up as an unregistered private eye but, more significantly, it’s about what life in Watts, the predominantly black Los Angeles district, was like in 1947. Subsequent books take Rawlins and his milieu forward to 1967 and he has a lot of other jobs along the way. Thing is, Easy’s black, so he can’t make wise-cracks (well, not out loud), carry a gun or be confident that the police won’t book him on a trumped-up charge or just shoot him. His friends aren’t the most reliable either; Mouse is borderline psychotic. Rawlins lacks experience or the sort of contacts Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe would use but he has a little voice in his head warning him when things aren’t right.

There’s an obvious debt to Raymond Chandler but Rawlins isn’t Marlowe; he’s just been laid off from wartime munitions work and has seen active duty. There are a lot of damaged people in noir thrillers, on screen or in print, but add the pressure-cooker environment of Watts to this and put in a focal character who isn’t by nature a gumshoe but needed some quick cash and the book goes off in very different directions from the traditional PI format. Mosley had already written a non-crime book about Rawlins and Mouse pre-WWII (Gone Fishin’) but that was only published after several hit books with primary colours in their titles. He knew Rawlins as a character before shoving him into an investigation, and it makes a difference. Easy’s insights aren’t the kind that work in film.

If you want to know what Easy did next, we have the next two books in the series in our crime section. If you want to see what Mosley thought he’d be doing once he’d got a first novel into print, we have Blue Light in the general fiction stacks. It’s different enough to have confused Mark Lawson but he’s out of his depth in anything that isn’t a familiar genre. With it in mind, though, it’s clearer that Mosley was trying to complicate over-familiar accounts of post-war African American experience and that reconfiguring the private eye genre from within was a commercially and artistically successful means to do this. That makes this books seem like a rant; it isn’t. But it isn’t just another murder-mystery with vintage cars either.

By Tat Wood