Devil in a Blue Dress | Critical Essay by Adam Lively

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Devil in a Blue Dress.
This section contains 739 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Adam Lively

SOURCE: "Blues Out of Watts," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4825, September 22, 1995, p. 24.

In the following essay, Lively examines Mosley's themes in Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death, and White Butterfly (collected in The Walter Mosley Omnibus) and their relation to his departure from detective fiction in RL's Dream.

Walter Mosley is a writer who has made a sudden and sharp change of direction. He has made his name with three hard-boiled crime novels, all set in Los Angeles in the late 1940s and 50s, all featuring the same tough-guy protagonist and all now collected in one volume [The Walter Mosley Omnibus]. But his new novel, RL's Dream, is something quite different. The setting is contemporary, there is no crime to be solved, and the hectic pace of the earlier books is replaced by a narrative that is more leisurely and cyclical, less linear and more "literary". It is a bold move to make, and one hopes that he can bring fans of the earlier books with him.

There may have been a shift of genres (the "literary" is as much a genre as any other), but the subject-matter remains constant. Walter Mosley is one of the few African-American writers—Chester Himes is the other obvious example—to have appropriated the procedures and emotional tone of generic crime fiction. The part of Los Angeles that he writes of is Watts, the district which attracted Southern blacks in their thousands for wartime work in the aircraft factories. Easy Rawlins, Mosley's sleuth, is originally from Texas. The whiplash dialogue and picaresque, alcohol-drenched storylines conjure up a social world in which poverty and racism have ground people down to a common denominator of violence, chemical-abuse and mutual mistrust. As with Chandler, who has clearly influenced Mosley, the plots are so tangled and fleeting as to become a blur. We are a long way from the tidy resolutions of the British detective novel. For Mosley, the chaos is the point.

The characters in RL's Dream are also on the edge of an abyss, but instead of stringing them out along an anecdotal narrative, Mosley attempts to uncover the roots of their pain, and the novel turns towards the characteristic African-American literary form, the autobiographical. Soupspoon Wise, an ageing blues musician, is on the skids. Dying of cancer and evicted from his New York apartment, he is befriended by an alcoholic young white woman, Kiki Waters, who takes him in, cheats the insurance firm for which she works to buy him medical care, and gives him the benefit of both love and the violent rage that is eating her up. Soupspoon tells her about his early days, and in particular about the great Robert Johnson (the "RL" of the title) with whom he once played. Victims both, they share their pain.

A cynical reader might observe that in concentrating on Robert Johnson, Mosley has followed his own pattern of plugging into fashionable, commercialized images of African-American culture. The 1980s saw young black musicians like Wynton Marsalis achieve considerable success with a re-creation of post-war bebop, a retro impulse mirrored in the pork-pie hats and sharp suits of Mosley's Easy Rawlins novels. (It seems inevitable that one of them, Devil in a Blue Dress, should have been made into a film starring Denzel Washington.) In the 1990s, it is the bluesman Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for musical genius, who has become iconic. RL's Dream includes some clichéd editorializing about the blues, a vein of sentiment that is familiar from writings about this subject, but which is rarely there in the music itself. "That's what music's all about", Soupspoon sums up at one point. "It's all about gettin' so close to pain that it's like a friend, like somebody you love."

In both the Easy Rawlins novels and RL's Dream, there is a tension between a wish to demonstrate the hardness of chaos and a desire to hint at some redemptive softness at the centre. Easy Rawlins is, in some respects, the familiar hard man with a heart of gold beloved of Hollywood, a chancer who, as a GI, killed Germans with his bare hands, but who occasionally commits Robin-Hood-like acts of generosity within his own community. The hard-boiled and the sentimental are, of course, complementary manifestations of a single complex. RL's Dream provides the spectacle of a gifted writer beginning to break out of that double-bind.

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This section contains 739 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Adam Lively