Critical Context

White Butterfly is Walter Mosley’s third novel, following Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) and A Red Death (1991). All three books feature Easy Rawlins and Mouse, and all three have been commercially and critically successful. Part of Mosley’s success can be attributed to the existence of a ready market for variations within the hard-boiled detective genre.

This genre is associated most often with early pioneers Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald, but by the time Mosley started writing there were dozens of successful authors working within the genre. In addition, the previously white, male realm of the private investigator had given way to a diverse group, including a number of female detectives as well as an occasional African American, such as Jackson F. Burke’s Sam Kelly, Ken Davis’s Carver Bascombe, and Ed Lacy’s Toussaint Moore.

Mosley has established himself as something more than a detective writer, however. He has used the form of the traditional hard-boiled detective story to explore important racial themes. Mosley has notable predecessors in this respect. Hammett explored the issue of race briefly in his short story “Nightshade” (anthologized in 1944), and Harry Whittingham’s 1961 novel Journey into Violence explores southern racism in a political context. Mosley’s closest precursor is Chester Himes. Himes’s first novel, If He Hollers, Let Him Go, takes place in Los Angeles and uses a hard-boiled prose style to explore the 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 starts his tales just after serving in the war.