Devil in a Blue Dress | Critical Review by Parnell Hall

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of Devil in a Blue Dress.
This section contains 726 words
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Critical Review by Parnell Hall

SOURCE: "How Many Bar Girls Must Die?," in The New York Times Book Review, September 6, 1992, p. 25.

Hall is the author of the "Stanley Hastings" mysteries. In the following review, he labels White Butterfly "standard stuff, to be sure…. But what elevates it is the character [of Easy Rawlins."]

Walter Mosley's first novel, Devll in a Blue Dress, was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award and received the Private Eye Writers of America's Shamus Award. His second novel, A Red Death, proved the success of his first was no fluke. Now, with White Butterfly, Walter Mosley has established himself as one of America's best mystery writers.

What sets these books apart from other suspense novels is, of course, the protagonist, Easy Rawlins. Rawlins is not your ordinary mystery hero. A black man coping with crime, racism and his own personal demons-though not necessarily in that order-he is a very complicated, personable and likable character.

Rawlins is a reluctant detective at best, often undertaking a case only after he has been entreated, cajoled, pressured, threatened and extorted into it. Such is the case in White Butterfly. The Los Angeles police couldn't care less about a series of brutal rape-murders of black bar girls, but when the next victim is white, suddenly something has to be done. Toward this end, the police enlist the aid of Rawlins on the theory that because he's black, he can go places and do things that most police cannot. This approach thrills Rawlins as much as one might expect, and he turns it down. It is only after the police arrest a friend of his on trumped-up charges, and intimate that he may get lost in the system and languish in jail forever, that Rawlins agrees to take up the case.

Standard stuff, to be sure-the makings of your typical made-for-television movie. But what elevates it is the character. It is not just that Rawlins is such an engaging fellow. He is a man who both ages and evolves. Devil in a Blue Dress, which was set in the Los Angeles of 1948, introduced us to a 28-year-old black man who was faced with the task of scratching up enough money to make his house payments in the face of poverty, racism and the fact that he had just been fired from his job. In A Red Death, we jump ahead to 1953, where a 33-year-old Rawlins, having acquired money and property through his first adventure, now works as a maintenance man in the very buildings he owns, while attempting to conceal his true worth from the I.R.S. In both these books, however, Rawlins is portrayed as a hard-drinking, hard-loving bachelor.

Which is why White Butterfly is a bit of a shock. As it begins, in 1956, we find Easy Rawlins in the role of husband and father. This is all the more surprising in that his wife was not even a character in the previous books. And being her mate could be Rawlins's toughest role of all. Easy is basically kind, gentle and loving; he really cares for his family, and he could be the perfect family man if he weren't too complicated for his own good. Rawlins loves his wife, but doesn't trust her or himself enough to let her get close to him, to let her know what he's really like. So he conceals from her the fact that he has money and property. This lack of trust is a tragic flaw that helps propel the action.

One of the major themes in the book, as in the others, is racial prejudice. Toward this end, setting the books in the 40's and 50's was a shrewd move. Racism was such a clear issue then-we know it existed and we know it was wrong. We see whites persecuting blacks and we're outraged and root for our hero. Our perception isn't muddied by wrestling with the moral dilemma of whether we should support, for example, a rap artist's constitutional right to perform songs in which the character plans to murder a policeman.

Will Walter Mosley ever deal with such issues in this series? I sincerely doubt it. After all, in contemporary times, Rawlins would be 72. Still, having read all three Walter Mosley novels, I must admit I can't wait to see where Easy Rawlins turns up next. And when.

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This section contains 726 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Theodore O. Mason Jr.