This section contains 5,189 words
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Critical Essay by Theodore O. Mason Jr.
SOURCE: "Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins: The Detective and Afro-American Fiction," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 173-83.
In the following essay, Mason examines Devil in a Blue Dress in relation to the theories of the novel developed by George Lukác and M. M. Bakhtin.
I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy's bar. It's not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. One lick of strawberry-blond hair escaped the band of his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes; not a color I'd ever seen in a man's eyes. 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.
With these words Walter Mosley begins his first detective novel Devll in a Blue Dress. Mosley's narrator is his detective/"hero" Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a black World War II veteran, now occupied with trying to make a living in the Los Angeles of 1948. Rawlins's narration makes clear from the very first paragraph that Devil in a Blue Dress will, among other things, concern itself with the borders between "races" and between genders, configuring these borders as the site not only of the criminal act, but also as the site of culturally transgressive possibility.
Devil in a Blue Dress concerns Rawlins's search for a woman named Daphne Monet. He is hired by a gangster, DeWitt Albright, first simply to search for her, then to recover both her and a considerable amount of stolen money. This search for Monet takes Easy Rawlins on a journey bringing him in contact not only with the police, but also with highly placed members of the political and financial community of Los Angeles, to say nothing of members of the "underworld." In many respects, Mosley's work seems of a piece with a great deal of crime fiction. What distinguishes Devil in a Blue Dress, as well as Mosley's second novel A Red Death, is the implications of its decision to represent the black community as the dominant site of the novel's action, rather than simply being the locus of exotic difference into which the white detective occasionally stumbles.
Joppy Shag's bar is one of the many places figured in the novel as a black site. In these sites Afro-American cultural identity becomes outlined, represented, and acted out by Mosley's characters. There they can find a space insulated for the most part from the intrusions of the white world, such as DeWitt Albright, even if "the odor of rotted meat filled every corner of the building." We learn later that Joppy's landlord is the only white face usually seen in the bar, and generally only on collection day. So in the first paragraph Albright's entrance into the bar is disruptive, if only by way of its rarity.
Mosley, though, makes certain to emphasize this particular intrusion because Albright ("all bright") becomes represented as white than white. From his "bone shoes" and silk socks to the Panama hat, Albright's hulking presence figures the overriding power of the white world. The discordant note to his appearance is the eye color Easy Rawlins has never seen despite his wide experience. Presumably, Easy has never seen Albright's eyes in any black man either. Significantly for the patterns of symbolism and imagery in the novel, the gangster seems the incarnation of evil, a real white devil—from his "great white shoulders" to the even more indicative identifying white business card on which he scribbles his address with "a white enameled fountain pen." Albright's significant attribute in the opening chapter is a sinister seductiveness Mosley indicates by recourse to the fairly standard symbolism of the serpent—DeWitt's grip was "like a snake coiling around my hand." His language, like his handshake, finds itself equally undercut. There, in the middle of post-World War II Watts, the gangster speaks "a light drawl like a well-to-do Southern gentleman."
Rawlins's relative equanimity in the face of the white devil derives from his thorough familiarity with whites and with death. He "was used to white people by 1948," because he had killed them in the war. Rawlins's familiarity gained in the war extends also to the realm of the sexual, since Easy on at least one other occasion refers to his sexual experience with white women—in Europe "all they got is white girls." Placed against DeWitt Albright's representation as the devil with the drawl, the experiences occasioning Easy's equanimity indicate Mosley's intention to play out at least part of his drama on the ground of racial and cultural transgressiveness.
This emphasis on transgression makes a consideration of Devll in a Blue Dress more important than it might otherwise seem. The "popularity" of detective fiction frequently militates against its being taken seriously. A different view, however, holds that the emphasis on transgression moves the detective fiction closer to the center of the novelistic tradition. As a genre, the novel might well be characterized as frequently concerned with the relation between the social whole and the possibility of transgression, or the maintenance of social norms. Some of the more significant and influential theoreticians of the novel form have tended to emphasize the role society plays as a totalizing structure in relation to the formal and thematic components of this dominant fictional genre.
If we shift the ground of the inquiry to the Afro-American novelistic tradition specifically, then the figure of the detective becomes, I think, even more central. This centrality derives from the experience of difference explored and represented by this body of fiction. In the context of a racist society, difference becomes encoded within cultural discourse as one of the chief signs of transgression (if not criminality)—so that the emphasis on transgression characteristic of the novel form generally becomes historicized and concretized in distinctive ways within the specific category of the Afro-American novel. In this way, protagonists in many of these novels, given their necessary engagement with transgression, begin to resemble detectives such as Easy Rawlins.
In this essay I want to bring some versions of the theory of the novel to bear on Mosley's Devll in a Blue Dress. Rather than taking the road likely more traveled, that is, reading Mosley in relation to the work of Chester Himes or even Rudolph Fisher, I prefer to study Mosley's novel within the context of Georg Lukács's Theory of the Novel and M. M. Bakhtin's "Epic and Novel," to shed some light on what I take to be the centrality of Mosley's work to much that is generally considered in the Afro-American novelistic tradition.
Invoking two critics and theorists such as Lukács and Bakhtin in an essay on Afro-American detective fiction may seem something like overkill. After all, the logic might go, the subgenre of detective fiction falls rather readily into the categories of popular literature. Further, these categories seem removed from the provinces of "high theory."
While I sympathize with the inclinations behind such an objection, I find myself unable to agree with it, for there is a fashion in which the theories of Lukács and Bakhtin center rather than marginalize detective fiction, even if they do so in rather different ways. But even more significantly, both Lukács and Bakhtin provide us with the foundation for a reading of Afro-American detective fiction that moves this form of writing far closer to the center of the Afro-American literary tradition taken as a whole than one might suspect. Both Lukács and Bakhtin achieve this special value by emphasizing the novel's role in engaging a world that is inherently fallen, or the site of the potentially transgressive.
Lukács consistently reads the novel as the epic of a fallen world. In one of his earliest published works, Theory of the Novel (1920), Lukács conceives of the novel in the following terms. "The novel is the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in which the immanence of meaning in life has become a problem, yet which still thinks in terms of totality." Though he is obviously a critic of enormous strengths, one of Lukacs's consistent weaknesses is his inclination to romanticize the social ground of the epic, in a fashion perhaps somewhat surprising for a Marxist literary theorist and critic. The wholeness of the epic world sharply contrasts with the inherent brokenness of the novelistic universe. While this brokenness may well be seen as the result of a Fall, it is a fortunate Fall (in a limited sense) into the realm of history. From Lukács's perspective, the absence of totality in the novelistic world provides the novel with its fundamental impetus—the desire to reform some version of epic totality, even if that version is historical and contingent, rather than transcendent and necessary.
The novel's hero, then, is a seeker, a status that implies a world in need of ordering, a social whole of considerably greater fluidity than that of the epic world. The epistemological implications of this shift in worldview cannot be overlooked, for if philosophy in the epic world is not a "problem," then presumably neither is epistemology. But the fall into fluidity and history tends to locate the philosophical problem precisely as an epistemological one, at least in its origins. For that reason, I want to suggest further that the epistemological problem is necessarily grounded within the realm of the social. The seeking done by the novel's heroes and heroines centers inevitably on the nature and substance of social knowledge within the context of a developing and dynamic social whole. Consequently, totality here is ever shifting. Furthermore, this concept of totality is impossible to separate from larger questions of power and politics, issues that in a culturally and "racially" heterogeneous scene (such as that undertaken by the Afro-American novel) inevitably involve the construction of self within the context of historically charged categories developed in the interest of the larger and controlling white society.
M. M. Bakhtin's engagement with the same kinds of issues that concern Lukács in Theory of the Novel moves us closer to a fuller appreciation of detective fiction as a subgenre. One of Bakhtin's central advantages over Lukács is his disinclination to read the epic world as the site of grace from which we all have fallen. Rather, Bakhtin sees in the very fluidity of the world a set of conditions perfect for representation by the novel. Throughout the pages of "Epic and Novel," he celebrates the novel's very incompleteness, a condition mirroring the condition of "reality" the novel takes as its field of representation. "The novel comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing. The novelist is drawn toward everything that is not yet complete." This incompleteness mimics and is mimicked by a similar condition in the representation of characters, particularly the "hero." As Bakhtin states it, "one of the basic internal themes of the novel is precisely the theme of the hero's inadequacy to his fate or his situation." The combination of a highly unstable "field" of representation and the instability of the hero's relation to the task before him or her underscores the novel's status as a highly problematized project.
But where Lukács may have seen this condition as defective (if perhaps inevitable), Bakhtin embraces this instability as a site of multiple possibility. Part of this enthusiasm we can grasp as a recognition of the understandable indeterminacy or indeterminateness of historical existence. Unlike the epic world, the novelistic world's absence of "totality" causes reality to be always in process, always somehow unequal to our categories of understanding. For precisely this reason, Bakhtin centers epistemology as the fundamental subtext of the novel form. "When the novel becomes the dominant genre, epistemology becomes the dominant discipline" ("Epic and Novel"). But we should understand that this emphasis on epistemology of course does not indicate a rather easy assignment of everyday phenomena into a static set of categories. Instead, epistemology itself is a highly problematized site, a form of inquiry that looks forward in the novelistic world in process, rather than backward to a highly static universe, as in the epic world.
Perhaps even more significantly, Bakhtin points us in a direction that seems inordinately fruitful for a "reading" of Mosley's Afro-American detective fiction. From its origins, the novel takes as part of its developmental impetus a significant engagement with questions of difference. The development of the novel is "powerfully affected by a very specific rupture in the history of European civilization: its emergence from a socially isolated and culturally deaf semipatriarchal society, and its entrance into international and interlingual contacts and relationships. A multitude of different languages, cultures and times became available to Europe, and this became a decisive factor in its life and thought" ("Epic and Novel"). This historical rupture becomes incorporated even in the novel's conception of its own world as "already opened up; one's own monolithic and closed world (the world of the epic) has been replaced by the great world of one's own plus 'the others'" ("Epic and Novel").
Now, assuredly, the history of Europe's engagement with the "other," even the white "other," has most often been less than salutary. Important here is less the outcome of this engagement, and more Bakhtin's centering of the engagement with the other in an epistemologically indeterminate scene as characteristic of the novel form. For what Bakhtin does, I believe, is historicize the novel's interest in epistemology in such a way as to put cross-cultural, potentially hybridized engagements at the heart of the form's genealogy. The search characteristic of novelistic heroes, then, becomes fundamentally grounded in the sociology of knowledge and identity, set within a dynamic set of social categories. And this ground is identical, I believe, to the ground of Afro-American detective fiction (and by implication Afro-American literature generally considered).
I am convinced this is true, even if so influential a writer as Raymond Chandler has it otherwise. His famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," on detective fiction ("hard-boiled" and "standard") reads the genre as principally involved with the righting of wrong. "The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done." The "hard-boiled" story differs from Chandler's perspective only insofar as the reinstitution of the "right" is less probable, "unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done." These individuals tend to be "hard men" doing "hard, dangerous work." Rather than emphasizing the restoration of justice and order, this characterization of the detective actually centers the reality of transgression as the informing issue, not only in terms of the criminal, but also in terms of the detective. One need only think of Hammett's description of Sam Spade as a "blond Satan" in Maltese Falcon, or the characterization of some of Chandler's own protagonists, even Philip Marlowe, to say nothing of the generally recognized tendency of the detective's behavior to replicate that of the criminal. The "dark street" to which Chandler refers in "The Simple Art of Murder" is the site of moral ambiguity, frequently on the part of all concerned. It can also be a site of informing cultural conflict regarding not only questions of justice, but also questions of social identity (racial, sexual, and the like) and cultural formation in a novelistic world characterized generically by a dynamic instability. The presence of these kinds of conflicts makes transgression a central issue, not so much in terms of criminality in the legal sense, but more generally in terms of the crossing of categories or the violation of social protocols about social, cultural, and historical identity. This is the dark street Walter Mosley takes us down in Devil in a Blue Dress.
Even though Mosley chooses to work the dark street, he complicates his presentation by figuring Easy Rawlins as having an interest in middle-class respectability. Contrasting with the emphasis on the potential for seeing Devil in a Blue Dress within the context of the transgressive alone is Mosley's insistence on the significance of Easy's house. It is, after all, a desire to ensure his mortgage payment that inclines him to accept Albright's offer of a "little job," even as the detective is aware of Albright's criminality. Put more accurately, it is precisely and ironically Easy's love for his house that propels him into the role of detective and into the zone of potential transgression.
Maybe it was that I was raised on a sharecropper's farm or that I never owned anything until I bought that house, but I loved my little home. There was an apple tree and an avocado in the front yard surrounded by thick St. Augustine grass. At the side of the house I had a pomegranate tree that bore more than thirty fruit every season and a banana tree that never produced a thing. There were dahlias and wild roses in beds around the fence and African violets that I kept in a big jar on the front porch.
Here the house works in both conventional and unconventional ways. Rawlins figures his home as a zone of safety and pastoral retreat away from the urban scene of Los Angeles. This is particularly clear given his inclination to use the garden and the trees surrounding his house as emblems of its "value" for him. Just as clearly the house is also a sign of stability and worth, and as such corresponds with a tradition in the novel (dating to its early origins) of symbolically negotiating and mediating the nature of middle-class life. The house as emblem or sign defines membership in the middle class and presumably indicates laudable stability and solid citizenship—contrasting starkly with the vision of the "hardboiled" detective of Chandler and Hammett as liminal figures.
On the other hand, Mosley is inclined to historicize and problematize the symbolism of Rawlins's house in at least two ways. By making Rawlins a veteran, Mosley historicizes his hero within the context of a major cultural movement or problem—the reintegration of World War II soldiers into the fabric of American life. The figure of the veteran here, both as incarnated by Rawlins and in general, is seen as someone possessing knowledge different from that of his fellows—a knowledge deriving from contact with death that tends to dislocate the veteran not only from the sphere of middle-class safety, but also from a set of assumptions about the nature of life, the nature of society, and the nature of human connection. The house, then, assuredly signifies the attempt to fold its owner back into the realm of the "everyday," but the fact that such a transformation is required casts doubts on its ultimate success.
The doubts are reinforced by Mosley's representation of Easy's war experiences as insistently making him unable to conform with prewar protocols about race. Having killed blue-eyed "Aryans" and therefore unpacked the mythology of whiteness, Easy does not imagine himself inclined to reinstall the racial understandings of the 1930s in 1948. The fashion in which Rawlins engages DeWitt Albright from the beginning of the novel (and all the other white characters) suggests that the recognizes their power, but that recognition hardly moves him toward abject obedience. In this regard the house works in ways more transgressive than not, for while it remains an emblem of entrance into middle-class life, that zone of safety and stability does not belong to Afro-Americans. In Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy's ownership of a house leads him to claim an equality with whites—"I felt that I was as good as any white man, but if I didn't even own my front door then people would look at me like just another poor beggar." This assertion of his value moves Easy into a more unstable realm by violating the "inviolable" metaphorical and literal spaces and categories a racist society requires to get on with its business. The house as an emblem of transgression works to expand this novel's examination of the nature of cultural knowledge in a scene informed by extreme fluidity, even as that fluidity remains unacknowledged.
Cultural knowledge within the universe of Devil in a Blue Dress becomes represented initially as racial knowledge, or more precisely, the negotiation of racial protocols. At nearly every step Mosley foregrounds race, but takes pains to set the issue of race within the context of culture, language, and history. Rawlins places himself early at the site of conflict between race and class phrased as a problem of language. "I always tried to speak proper English in my life, the kind of English they taught in school, but I found over the years that I could only truly express myself in the natural, 'uneducated' dialect of my upbringing." Proper English works here very much in the same fashion as Easy's house. Like the house, grammatical English is a site of convention, of stability, of safety. Identified with formal education, it can readily be seen as Easy's entry into a realm previously denied him and those like him. But here the fit is imperfect, for proper English is not the dialect of Easy's personal history, nor is it represented in the novel as the dialect of his culture or race. The emphasis on language is repeated throughout the novel when Easy strays into "white" territory—especially the offices of Albright and the other businesspeople.
Easy's verbal articulations of self are always conceived of as inappropriate or disjunctive. In Chapter 17, Mosley describes his hero's search for a white banker, Mr. Carter, who may be involved in the developing mystery. The difficulty Easy experiences in gaining access to Carter revolves around protocols of language—who speaks to whom on whose terms, and in what language. Easy slides from formal English into "dialect" as his interview with Carter's receptionist proceeds. But more important than whether Easy violates the conventions of verb forms is the question of whether he is allowed to speak the language of power, or whether his "race" ought to prevent him from doing so. Usurping white language resembles owning a house, insofar as both acts move one into the realm of transgression, the zone of dangerous instability. Even verbal conventions in the police station affirm this insistent transgressiveness. The drama of "discipline and punish" played out by the police is interpreted by Easy as yet another version of "cops and niggers," even if it does not play out exactly to form. The obvious play on "cops and robbers" signifies the essential condition of blackness as the ground of transgression.
Even more significant, the ground of race is given an important twist by invoking the no less problematic issue of sex. The devil in the novel's title is Daphne Monet, whose patterns of signification suggest how fluid and how complicated the discursive cultural universe represented in Devil in a Blue Dress really is. Daphne first appears to us as a variable signifier, indicating a range of "feminine" types from fearful potential victim to knowing seductress. As such, one is tempted to read her in much the same light as Hammett's Bridget O'Shaughnessy or Chandler's Carmen Sternwood. But Daphne's patterns of signification involve more than simple questions of truth and falsehood, or sexual innocence and sexual knowledge, once Mosley puts her particular form of masquerade at the culturally charged crossroads of race and sex.
Throughout the text she changes identities. "Her face was beautiful. More beautiful than [her] photograph. Wavy hair so light brown that you might have called it blond from a distance, and eyes that were either green or blue depending on how she held her head. Her cheekbones were high but her face was full enough that it didn't make her seem severe." From this initial description of Daphne Monet, Mosley frames her identity as shifting and changing. Neither hair color nor eye color remains constant. The character of each depends entirely on the perspective of the viewer and on Daphne's own "positioning" of herself. The variable effect is part and parcel of Mosley's larger intention to unpack the categories governing cultural knowledge within the discursive field of Devil in a Blue Dress by creating characters who constantly violate the borders of those categories.
Daphne first represents herself as French, bringing Easy metaphorically back to his experiences of interracial sex during the war. But under stress, her accent noticeably slips away, sliding from French into something likely southern. She says to Rawlins after a passionate kiss, "Too bad we won't have a chance to get to know each other Easy. Otherwise I'd let you eat this little white girl up." The explicit invitation to enter this most unequivocally transgressive zone, is given yet another turn by Easy's inclination to see her (and Mosley's inclination to construct her) as shifting her identity even more radically. Her sexual aggressiveness is read as somehow even more than masculine—"I never knew a man who talked as bold as Daphne Monet." Mosley goes so far as having her urinate as loudly as a man. This gender shifting is set within the context of Daphne's indeterminate identity. "Daphne was like a chameleon lizard. She changed for her man. If he was a mild white man who was afraid to complain to the waiter she'd pull his head to her bosom and pat him. If he was a poor black man who had soaked up pain and rage for a lifetime she washed his wounds with a rough rag and licked the blood till it staunched."
Mosley gives Daphne's character yet another turn by revealing that in fact she is not "a little old white girl," but rather is "black." Her "true" identity is Ruby Hanks, the half sister of Frank Green, one of the novel's "heavies," a man as "black" as Daphne seems "white." "He was wearing a dark suit, so dark that you might have mistaken it for black. He wore a black shirt. His black shoe was on the cushion next to my head. There was a short-rimmed black Stetson on his head. His face was as black as the rest of him. The only color to Frank Green was his banana-colored tie, loosely knotted at his throat." This play of colors in Frank's description anticipates the familial conjunction of Frank and Daphne, for she is the high "yellow" in a field of black (and no doubt the offspring of another transgressive sexual union).
When Rawlins finally understands who (and what) Daphne/Ruby really is, he phrases that revelation in language consistent with the novel's decentering of conventional categories informing identity and cultural knowledge. "I had only been in an earthquake once but the feeling was the same: The ground under me seemed to shift. I looked at her to see the truth. But it wasn't there. Her nose, cheeks, her skin color—they were white. Daphne was a white woman. Even her pubic hair was barely bushy, almost flat." Daphne's straight pubic hair becomes a sign for the intentionalized indeterminateness of her identity. Significantly, given the cultural perspective on questions of race in the novel's represented world, this ultimate sign is sexual—the site of the most powerful form of transgression. But Easy Rawlins (Mosley, too) figures identity here as an absence. The shifting ground to which Easy refers indicates the entire set of understandings about "race" that the novel has sought to problematize and to deconstruct. There is no "truth" there, at least no truth in the social text that fetishes the outward signs of difference.
Just as in Bakhtin's view of the novel, the social text of race is incommensurate with what it seeks to represent or to signify. The detective, like the novel's seeker/heroes, discovers not only his (in this case) inadequacy, but also the profound inadequacy of the whole range of social matrices that presumably have constructed cultural knowledge. The mystery here is finally not about money or murder. Rather the mystery revealed here concerns the shifting nature of racial "being" and cultural knowing. By constructing Devil in a Blue Dress in this fashion, Mosley moves us into the realm of a socially constructed epistemology that is ever in motion.
In a larger sense this novel seems absolutely at home with much of the general trajectory of Afro-American fiction, particularly recent work with its emphasis on genealogy and origin. Perhaps better said, much of Afro-American fiction seems quite possibly to be following the trajectory of detective fiction, culturally encoded or conceived. The only significant difference here is that Mosley actively embraces what in other venues is merely gestured at.
If one of the fundamental signs of the experience of difference is a disjunction between experience itself and the categories imposed on that experience, then such a condition mirrors the hybridized world outlined by Bakhtin. In a fictional work, this fundamental instability necessitates the kind of protagonist who seeks the resolution of the various tensions occasioned by this cultural instability. It seems to me that searchers in Afro-American fiction approximate the condition of detectives precisely because the assertion of the authentic self constitutes a transgressive act in a racist and sexist society—even if the self advanced is figured as multiple or shifting or indeterminate.
One thinks here of Milkman in Morrison's Song of Solomon, where the search is figured as a form of genealogy. Significantly, the final outcome of the dramatic action of the novel is represented as indeterminate. Not only is it indeterminate, but the indeterminacy is not a problem. Morrison's narrator reminds us that "it did not matter which one of them [Guitar or Milkman] would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother." Similarly, David Bradley's protagonist in The Chaneysville Incident (1981), John Washington, is a professional historian whose search for the truth about his father's death leads him to a fuller understanding of his own identity.
In the process of seeking, Washington ultimately discards the intellectual tools of the historian, forsaking formal categories of intellectual discourse for an act of imaginative reconstruction that recreates the past, perhaps more than reconstructing it—so that the method of the search dismantles one of Washington's identities as it constructs another.
One thinks here, too, of Ishmael Reed's Mumbo-Jumbo (1972), where the search is for the text of blackness, the Book of Thoth. But the book itself is a variable signifier, elusive, almost Protean, as is the blackness it signifies. What Reed's HooDoo detective Papa LaBas finds is the indeterminacy of identity, a condition certified when the book itself is burned, leaving only a hybridized and multifaceted blackness, without even a variable or floating signifier. Reed's version of the seeker and the search, as well as Morrison's and Bradley's, have a great deal in common with the ones represented in the pages of Devil in a Blue Dress. The experience of transgressive difference deconstructs the idea of totality; and the novel form's inclination to engage in exactly such a project facilitates the aims of Afro-American seekers both in explicitly detective fictions such as Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress and in much of the recent Afro-American novelistic tradition as a whole.
This section contains 5,189 words
(approx. 18 pages at 300 words per page)