I was a bit disappointed when I finished reading Devil in a Blue Dress last night. Easy Rawlins is a great character, no doubt, and there are some very interesting aspects of the book. One of them is its post-war context, specifically as felt and explained by Easy himself as a black man who fought in what some saw as a white man’s war, his experiences of tension but also solidarity in the army, his frustrations on returning to an America where despite being a veteran he found himself still an outsider, still vulnerable to the degradation of police harassment and abuse. Mosley manages to make Easy’s social commentary and criticism seem natural to his first-person narration, moments of articulated reflection rather than didactic exposition. Easy’s narration itself is also very interesting, particularly when juxtaposed against the speaking voice he uses in conversation–or speaking voices, I should say, as he shifts deftly between registers to suit his purposes, or to meet or surprise his audience.
What I found less interesting was the book’s take on its adopted genre. The deliberate throw-back to hard-boiled detection has its provocative features, as discussed, for instance, in Daylanne English’s essay “The Modern in the Postmodern: Walter Mosley, Barbara Neely, and the Politics of Contemporary African-American Detective Fiction,” which I read after finishing the book. English disputes other critics, who emphasize the difference it makes that Mosley’s hard-boiled private eye is black, and instead argues for the significance of the similarities between Mosley and his predecessors: “Mosley’s…return to a quintessentially modern and quintessentially cynical genre now is to argue that we have not yet earned the ‘post’ in postmodernity.” That is, if I follow her correctly, Mosley’s close imitation of a form with its origins in a particular moment in the American past, rooted in particular critiques of that moment, is his way of saying not much has changed:
He chooses to return in the 1990s and early 2000s to a genre born of 1930s discontent in order to write novels set in the 1940s-60s, thereby enacting a complex process of literary anachronism that describes and inscribes present-day injustice and discontent.
The familiarity of Easy Rawlins’s situation as a black man in America, even the ready-to-hand recent parallels between real events and things that happen in the series (such as the Rodney King beating) tell us that the past is not as past as we like to imagine–“at least some things are liable to stay the same, across time, for poor and working-class black men in Los Angeles.” I find this a plausible reading of the effect of this ‘literary anachronism,’ though at the same time that seems a potentially ineffective, because fairly oblique, way to offer social critique aimed at present problems. It has to occur to the reader to make the modern-day comparisons–not that they are terribly remote, but there are ways they could be made immediate in the novel itself (for instance, by placing Rawlins’s narrative specifically in the present so that he could incorporate some retrospective comparisons? he is speaking from the future, as he does make some ‘the way things were back then’ remarks, but I don’t think we know exactly when he is telling the story from). Still, this is one of the ways I would probably approach the novel if I taught it, asking not only what difference it makes to the genre of hard-boiled detection when the protagonist is black (as, with Paretsky’s Indemnity Only, we ask what difference it makes when the investigator is a woman), but what it means to recreate not just the style but the period, as Mosley does so well.
But it’s that very close imitation of an earlier form, good as it is, that leaves me reluctant to use the novel. For me, it didn’t seem different enough. It recreates the things that worry and weary me about hard-boiled detective fiction: it portrays a grim, violent world and the violence is quite sensationalized; the men are tough, callous even, and the women are peripheral, victims or (as in the case of the eponymous ‘devil’) vamps. The case itself turns primarily on money and power–and it’s every bit as tangled in its details as its hard-boiled models, meaning by the end I wasn’t even really trying to keep all the deals and double-crosses straight. It didn’t seem to me, either (though I haven’t thought this through all the way yet) that race played a key thematic, rather than contextual, role. Maybe there are other books later in the series that let go of, or interrogate more forcefully, the problematic features of this particular kind of detective novel. I have time to do some more reading and thinking, and I should, as I would like my reading list to represent better the diversity of voices working in the genre. English’s essay makes me think that in addition to more of Mosley’s, I should look up Neely’s books; I also have Gar Haywood and Grace Edwards on my list. Any other suggestions?