The protagonist, Easy Rawlins, has no family connections and is largely self-educated. He is a former Texas factory worker who has moved to California in part to escape the influence of his friend Mouse. When he is fired from his aircraft factory job after a racial incident with his foreman, however, Easy accepts the job of searching for Daphne Monet; ironically, the danger into which the search leads Easy causes him to contact Mouse and ask for his help. Easy’s is a divided character. Part of him wants to pursue the American Dream (he has recently bought a house, and he undertakes detective work in order to pay his mortgage), and this side of him finds the confusion and risk of his new job unsettling. He is haunted by his World War II combat experiences in Europe, and he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the violent situations into which he is repeatedly drawn. Another side of Easy’s nature, however, enjoys his new lifestyle. Eventually, Easy discovers that detective work provides him with an independence and self-confidence that he has not previously had.
Easy’s friend and partner, Mouse, is shadowy and mysterious. It is known that he has killed his stepfather in a dispute over an inheritance, but little more is revealed about his past. Although he is violent and unpredictable, he values loyalty and friendship.
Dewitt Albright, the shady attorney who hires Easy, is less ambiguously presented. Like Mouse, he is unpredictable and dangerous, but he lacks Mouse’s loyalty and other values. Albright seems to have no morals or scruples.
Daphne Monet, the “devil in a blue dress,” is mysterious and elusive. Her real name is Ruby Hanks, and her mother is African American. As Daphne Monet, however, she passes for white. She leaves her home in Louisiana and the identity of Ruby Hanks to escape the memory of an incestuous relationship with her father. She has so perfected her escape from the past that she is described as a “chameleon.” She is able not only to assume different racial identities but also to become radically different personalities.