Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (4/5)

I suppose apologies are in order.  It’s been five days since I last posted, and the reviews are piling up again.  It’s not my fault, really.  It’s these people I work for.  They send me to the UK for three weeks, and they actually expect me to work.  Pfft.  I was under the impression this was an all expenses paid vacation.  What gives?

Oh well… they’re paying the bills (indirectly, at any rate), so I guess I gotta do what they say.

Anyhow, remember how I said I was on a Walter Mosley kick?  Well this is final leg of that bender—Mosley’s very first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress.  It’s not as good as some of his other works, but can you blame him?  It was only his first published novel, and he wrote it 22 years ago.  There was bound to be some improvement between then and now.  That being said, Devil in a Blue Dress is a far cry from being a bad novel.  Hell, it’s a far cry from being an O.K. novel.  It’s really good—just not the five star variety of good.  You dig?

Good.  Now let me tell you a little something-something about the plot.

Easy Rawlins is a black man living in 1948 Los Angeles.  He fought with Patton’s 7th Army during WWII and now works as a machinist for an aircraft assembly plant.  At the beginning of the novel, however, he has just been fired from his job.  While sitting in his friend Joppy’s bar—drowning his sorrows, no doubt—he is approached by a white man named Dewitt Albright.  Albright is a mean cuss if there ever was one, a grinning shark of a gangster who offers Easy $100 to find a white woman named Daphne Monet (the titular “Devil in a Blue Dress).  Daphne likes “dark meat,” and Albright needs someone with connections to the black community in order to find her and whoever she’s shacking up with.  As it turns out, Albright’s employer is in love with Daphne, and only wants to talk to her to beg her to come back—but she also stole $30,000 from the man when she ran off, and Albright wants that money.  Easy doesn’t find out about all that until much later, but never mind that. 

When he starts looking around for Daphne, people start getting killed.  It’s not a good Noir mystery unless at least three people get the axe, and Devil in a Blue Dress is no exception.  First to die is a man named Howard Green, the chauffer of a wealthy politico, then Easy’s friend Coretta James who supposedly knew the wayward white girl.  A pimp of under-aged boys and a rich pedophile also bite the dust, but that’s really more of a cause for celebration than anything else.  Confused yet?  I don’t blame you.  You really have to read the book to get it all.  It doesn’t matter, though, because the main point is that a bunch of people die, and the police set their sights upon Easy.  They sweat him, beat him, and generally make his life miserable several times throughout the novel as they try to get him to tell them what he knows.  He doesn’t, of course.  He’s a tough sonofabitch, after all.  But once out, Rawlins begins his own investigation to find the murders, find Daphne, and unravel the mystery that surrounds “this devil in a blue dress.”  What evolves is a twisted maze of sex, murder, and greed that Easy barely escapes with his life—in short, everything that makes Noir awesome.

If any author could be called the heir to Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, it has to be Mosley.  Devil in a Blue Dress has all the formulaic elements that made their novels great—first person narration, an honorable, hard-nosed P.I., grim worldview, and plot that marries both the wealthy and the down and out in their common iniquities.  But Mosley’s work differs in two key aspects.  First, there’s the African American perspective, which necessarily changes some of the elements of the story (like the focus on the Black community and the use of vernacular for much of the narrative) and adds others that the originals lacked (like racism and race-relations).  Second, Mosley introduces “The Voice,” a viciously primal split personality that appears within his protagonist whenever he runs into a dangerous situation.  The Voice tells him how to escape such a situation with level-headed advice such as “Kill that son’bitch!” or “Grab that there rock and bash his face in!”  The jury is still out over The Voice—I can’t decide if it was pure genius or a tad on the hokey side.  I’m leaning toward the latter, but I don’t know.  I’ll make up my mind when I read the next book in the series. 

That being said, Devil in a Blue Dress is simply not on the same level as the greats like The Drowning Pool or The Big Sleep.  Then again, I don’t think anyone ever expected it to be.  It was Mosley’s first book, after all.  But if you happen to like the work of the rest of the noir and hardboiled elite, I encourage you to give Mosley a try.  You don’t have to start at the beginning with Devil in a Blue Dress (I certainly didn’t), but if you do, you’ll be amazed at Mosley’s transformation as a writer over the years.  He’s come a long way—from a talented imitator, to a master in his own right.


  1. Know what I dig? That cover.

  2. Good for you for going back and reading an author's work, as well as comparing it to his older titles. I also think the cover is great.
    One of these days I have to read noir novels.

    1. It may or may not be your cup of tea. Some people like the style and the grit, and some people find it melodramatic and over the top. I guess it boils down to personal taste, but I encourage you to take a sip and see how it affects your palate!