Mosley’s mystery novels fall into the category of hard-boiled detective stories. This genre is associated most often with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, pioneers who transformed a popular form of entertainment into world-recognized literature. By the time Mosley started writing, there were dozens of successful authors working within the genre. In addition, the once exclusively white male enclave of the private eye had included several woman and African American detectives.
Easy Rawlins is not a licensed private investigator, but the unlicensed operative has a long lineage. The detective in Hammett’s The Glass Key (1930), for example, is a friend of the primary suspect, and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee and Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder are unlicensed agents who, like Easy Rawlins, do “favors” for people. There is also a related genre of hard-boiled novels that are stylistically similar to hard-boiled detective stories, only without a detective as protagonist. Prominent writers within this genre have included James Cain, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Harry Whittingham. Easy’s first-person narrative and continual struggles with his inner self are reminiscent of many works in this latter genre, though Mosley’s novels are definitely “whodunits” as well.
In both of its forms, the hard-boiled genre features a lean, hard style of language, suspense, fast-paced action, and psychological as well as social realism. As Raymond Chandler pointed out in his 1950 essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” hard-boiled literature differs from the classical British detective story in its focus on the “mean streets” of America’s cities and the real motives behind human behavior. Rather than inventing and unraveling puzzling crimes (for example, locked-door mysteries), hard-boiled writers explore the puzzles of the human heart.
The detective in hard-boiled literature is usually a lonely “knight,” full of human flaws yet devoted to truth and justice. Unlike police officers, hard-boiled detectives are not limited by their bureaucratic positions or by the law. They are, however, limited. They often fail, and though they may note the world’s injustices, they usually end up coping with them rather than bringing about instantaneous reform.
Mosley’s series fits well into this genre. His style is lean and true to the streets. He presents Los Angeles in a conspicuously unidealized way. In addition, Easy is a loner who, despite his personal flaws, takes risks and bends rules to make the world more just. He also has a hunger for truth, though he is willing to lie if it serves his purpose.
Paris Minton and Fearless Jones of Mosley’s second mystery series also fit this mold of the loner willing to take risks and bend the rules to create a kind of local justice. However, Minton and Jones are even more amateur as detectives, doing what they do to help others who seem helpless, but just as frequently they act as they do to help themselves when the system has failed.
What distinguishes Mosley’s work, in addition to depth of characterization and sheer storytelling ability, is that he deals with issues of race, which pose many vexing problems of social justice. (Note the theme of color in Mosley’s titles, as well as the fact that he begins his series with references to the colors of the American flag.) Following the lead of such prominent African American authors as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Chester Himes, Mosley explores problems of discrimination, black identity, and black alienation.
Mosley also treats the theme of violence. Easy Rawlins hesitates to use violence except in self-defense, yet he is saved more than once by his friend Mouse’s willingness to use violence freely. Indeed, Easy seems to be incomplete without Mouse. Mouse’s violence, however, also does not provide an answer. Left to himself, Mouse would drink, chase women, and occasionally shoot people. Violence is also an issue Fearless Jones (2001), again demonstrating an ambiguity about how violence fits into the social pattern.
Mosley’s work has notable predecessors. Hammett explored the issue of race briefly in his short story “Nightshade” (anthologized in 1944), and Whittingham’s 1961 novel Journey into Violence explores southern racism in a political context. Mosley’s closest precursor, though, is Chester Himes. Himes’s first novel, If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945), takes place in Los Angeles and uses a hard-boiled prose style to explore issues of racial justice and black alienation. Himes’s novel ends with the main character, Bob Jones, about to enter the Army in 1943. Mosley’s Easy Rawlins is a World War II veteran who starts his tales just after the war. Moreover, Himes later made a name for himself by writing suspense novels featuring two black Harlem detectives who often play by their own rules.
What Mosley has fully demonstrated is the compatibility of two essentially radical literary perspectives. Although African American literature has been more overtly critical, the best hard-boiled work also challenges accepted beliefs about the justness of American society. With the successful marriage of these two literary perspectives, Mosley has produced eminently readable novels that resonate with meaning. Mosley’s African American fiction also deals with issues of race, economics, and violence, depicting the difficulty of survival in the modern American culture where abuse and poverty affect all races. Violence is not depicted positively but presented as a failure of the society that must be addressed, as race and poverty issues must be addressed if society is to move forward.
Devil in a Blue Dress
First published: 1990
Type of work: Novel
A black World War II veteran turns to the dangerous world of detective work when he loses his job in a factory.
Devil in a Blue Dress introduces readers to Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, the principal character in Mosley’s detective novels. Easy is not a licensed detective; in fact, he is not a detective at all at the outset of the novel. It is 1948, and he is a young black veteran of World War II who has moved to the largely black Watts section of Los Angeles after growing up in a tough Houston neighborhood.
Circumstances conspire to put Easy in the detective business. He has lost his job at an aircraft factory after standing up to his white supervisor. Easy likens the plant to a plantation, but without his job there, he has no way to make the mortgage payments on his small house in Watts.
A solution arises when a bartender and former fighter named Joppy, also from Houston, introduces Easy to a menacing white man named Albright. Albright is searching for a white woman named Daphne Monet, who has been seen in Watts. According to Albright, Daphne’s former lover merely wants to get in touch with her. Despite misgivings, Easy takes on the job of finding Daphne.
Soon a string of murders convinces Easy that he has gotten himself into something more dangerous than he imagined. The police rough him up. Desperate, Easy summons his friend Mouse from Houston to help. Mouse is Easy’s best friend, but he is also the reason Easy left Houston. Mouse is a killer who, on one occasion, made Easy an accessory to murder. Easy leaves a message for Mouse. Not knowing what to expect, he then tries to handle the situation himself.
Daphne has been linked to a black gangster named Frank Johnson, whom Easy wants to avoid. He gets a break when Daphne calls and asks for his help. Instead of turning her over to Albright, Easy grants her request. When Daphne bolts again, Easy is sure that Albright means to harm her, even if his client does not. Easy believes that Albright is principally interested in thirty thousand dollars Daphne took when she disappeared.
In order to help Daphne, Easy tries to locate Frank Johnson. He returns home one day to find Johnson waiting for him. Suspicious about Easy’s interest in his affairs, Johnson is about to kill Easy when Mouse appears and scares Johnson out of the house.
Daphne calls again, and Easy takes her to what he thinks is a safe haven, a motel owned by his Mexican American friend Primo. Daphne and Easy become lovers. Coming back from a meal, they find that Albright and two henchmen have tracked them down. Easy is knocked out, but when he comes to, he manages to find out Albright’s address. He pursues Albright, leaving word for Mouse.
Easy finds that Daphne is being held by Albright and Joppy. They are trying to persuade her to tell them where the money is hidden. Easy tries to free Daphne, but he is once again about to be killed when Mouse comes to the rescue. Mouse mortally wounds Albright, kills Joppy, and makes Daphne (who, it turns out, is Frank Johnson’s half sister) tell the whereabouts of the money. Mouse, Easy, and Daphne split the money three ways. Daphne leaves Easy because he now knows that she is not white. Indeed, she left her lover partly because a blackmailer threatened to expose her lineage. Easy is left to square things with the police. He implicates Joppy, Albright, and another murderer. Easy leaves Mouse out of his story; he also protects Daphne, who has killed the blackmailer.
Easy also has his compassionate side. He rescues a boy, Jesus, who has been sexually abused by the blackmailer. He finds the boy a home with Primo and his wife. Easy cannot change the world, but he can make it better for one child.
A Red Death
First published: 1991
Type of work: Novel
Easy Rawlins is drawn into a case involving communists, a rogue federal agent, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
In A Red Death, it...
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