Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Walter Mosley builds upon the hard-boiled tradition of Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler and the revisionary work of the African American novelist Chester Himes. The hard-boiled tradition is masculine to the point of chauvinism and revels in dark settings, moral ambiguity, and the unreliability of appearances. Himes is not Mosley’s only African American predecessor; W. Adolphe Roberts (The Haunting Hand, 1926) and Rudolph Fisher (The Conjure-Man Dies, 1932) also wrote detective fiction. Like the best of Chandler and Macdonald, Devil in a Blue Dress is a complex morality play; like the best of Himes, the novel uses American race relations as the vehicle for moral commentary. Analyses of Mosley’s work will be most complete with an acknowledgment of both the Macdonald-Chandler tradition and Himes’s African American revision.

The emergence of Mosley’s work is coincident with a rediscovery of Himes’s detective works and more particularly the 1991 film adaptation of Himes’s A Rage in Harlem (1957). It is also coincident with the emergence of Terry McMillan’s romance novels Mama (1987) and Disappearing Acts (1989) and marks the reevaluation of the possibilities within formula fiction by African American novelists.

Devil in a Blue Dress was meant to initiate a whole series of Easy Rawlins mysteries. It met with positive critical response but little extended analysis or discussion; few individual detective novels have been given close textual readings. Literary critics and historians who have directed their attention to this genre tend to focus on the development of series and their relationship to other series within the tradition. Devil in a Blue Dress has been followed by nearly a dozen Easy Rawlins novels. As the Rawlins series has grown, it has attracted increased critical reflection. It is now compared to series by such noted authors as Raymond Chandler and Dasiell Hammett.