Devil in a Blue Dress | Critical Review by Gary Dretzka

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Devil in a Blue Dress.
This section contains 950 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Gary Dretzka

SOURCE: "A Black Gumshoe in 1948 L. A.," in Chicago Tribune—Books, July 1, 1990, p. 6.

In the following review, Dretzka praises Mosley's debut novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, and anticipates comparisons of the author's work to other black writers of the detective fiction genre.

A couple of months back, just after books by Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton and Nancy Pickard hit the nation's bookstores, there was a flurry of articles about a boom in mysteries by American women writers.

The reporters, for Newsweek and other mass-market publications, finally had observed something readers of crime fiction long have taken granted: that our women could kill people off and solve crimes every bit as convincingly as Brits P. D. James, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and such American male counterparts as Tony Hillerman—and that, in fact, they had been doing so for years.

I wonder if a similar kind of fuss will be made when critics start oohing and aahing about Walter Mosley's sparkling debut novel, Devil in a Blue Dress.

The 38-year-old Mosley is black. And, thus, the inevitable comparisons to the great Chester Himes (Cotton Comes to Harlem, Blind Man With a Pistol, etc.) and Los Angeles' Gar Haywood (Fear of the Dark) almost certainly will be made—although, unfortunately, there are many fewer black mystery writers out there to build such a trend story around.

But there's really no need to go to all the trouble. Devil in a Blue Dress would be worthy of special notice whatever its author's race. (And, trust me, no one should wait for the bandwagon to arrive before jumping on Himes' and Haywood's work.)

Mosley's novel is set in Los Angeles in 1948, a time when many blacks were migrating to Southern California from the South to escape its twin treadmill of segregation and poverty.

The area's booming post-war aircraft industry especially lured those black World War II veterans who had first met white people on a relatively equal footing in the armed forces and were unwilling to return to the conditions they'd left behind.

Easy Rawlins, Mosley's hero, left Houston's rough 5th Ward for the army and, later, Los Angeles when he came perilously close to being implicated in a couple of murders committed by his running partner, Mouse. By 1948, Easy had a good job at Champion Aircraft and a house with a mortgage in a neighborhood full of other folks from Texas.

Mosley is drawing from the real-life story of his father when he establishes the fictional environment for Easy:

"[I]n L. A. people don't have time to stop; anywhere they have to go they go there by car. The poorest man has a car in Los Angeles; he might not have a roof over his head but he has a car. And he knows where he's going too. In Houston and Galveston, and way down in Louisiana, life was a little more aimless. People worked a little job but they couldn't make any real money no matter what they did. But in Los Angeles you could make a hundred dollars in a week if you pushed. The promise of getting rich pushed people to work two jobs in the week and do a little plumbing on the weekend. There's no time to walk down the street or make a bar-b-q when somebody's going to pay you real money to haul refrigerators."

As we meet him, Easy has just been fired from his job after lipping off to his supervisor and is nervous about where he'll get his next mortgage payment. He's visiting a bar owned by his old friend, Joppy, who introduces him to a dapper white man who immediately offers to help Easy through his financial problem—if he locates a certain beautiful blond woman known to frequent after-hours nightclubs in Watts.

Easy proves immediately adept at the gumshoe game, but, as in all mysteries, one seemingly routine encounter leads to something unexpected and violent.

Soon, bodies and racist cops are littering Easy's path back to respectable society, and he's embroiled in an investigation that leads him to the offices of one of L. A.'s most influential businessmen.

As Mosley admits in the biographical notes that came with the book's galleys, his writing owes much to the stories handed down from his father and "thousands of his 'cousins' who moved to Los Angeles" from Houston. That rich storytelling legacy is constantly and wonderfully present in Devil in a Blue Dress.

But fans of the hard-boiled genre will recognize other voices, as well, as diverse as those of yesterday's hard-boiled Raymond Chandler and today's no-nonsense Andrew Vachss. And Mosley, who now lives in New York, certainly has no problem creating believable action and ethical challenges for Easy:

"Somewhere along the way I had developed the feeling that I wasn't going to outlive the adventure I was having. There was no way out but to run, and I couldn't run, so I decided to milk all those white people for all the money they'd let go of.

"Money bought everything. Money paid the rent and fed the kitty. Money was why Coretta was dead and why DeWitt Albright was going to kill me. I got the idea, somehow, that if I got enough money then maybe I could buy my own life back."

As a cover blurb attests, Mosley is already at work on a follow-up to Devil in a Blue Dress, so it's no secret that Easy finds a way out of his predicament. But it doesn't look as if he'll be spending much time back at Champion Aircraft, either—sleuthing may not be the most lucrative of professions, but, in books at least, it's rarely dull.

I, for one, can't wait to find out where Easy Rawlins' hard life is going to take him next.

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This section contains 950 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gary Dretzka