Themes and Meanings
White Butterfly is a hard-boiled detective novel that explores important racial themes. The hard-boiled genre features a lean style of language, suspense, fast-paced action, and psychological as well as social realism. As Raymond Chandler pointed out in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” hard-boiled detective literature differs from the more “civilized” British detective story in its focus on the “mean streets” of America’s cities and real motives behind human behavior. Rather than unraveling puzzling crimes (for example, locked door mysteries), hard-boiled writers explore the puzzle of the human heart.
The detective in hard-boiled literature is usually a lonely “knight,” full of human flaws yet somehow devoted to truth and justice, so devoted that he or she is willing to risk life and limb for a small payment or no payment at all. Unlike police officers, hard-boiled detectives are not limited by their bureaucratic position or by the law; they do face other limits. They usually end up coping with the world’s injustices rather than bringing about complete reform.
Easy Rawlins is just such a loner. Despite his personal flaws, he takes risks and bends rules to make the world a little better. He also has a hunger to know the truth, though he is willing to lie if it serves his purposes. What distinguishes Mosley’s work is that the social realism he deals with involves the issue of race. The theme of color in Mosley’s title is notable and alludes to Duke Ellington’s song “Black Butterfly.”
Following such prominent authors as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Chester Himes, Mosley explores the problems of black identity in a hostile homeland, police brutality (as well as more subtle forms of discrimination), and the depth of black alienation. Perhaps most poignant is his treatment of violence as a theme. Mosley’s Easy Rawlins hesitates to use violence except in self-defense. On the other hand, Easy is aided by his friend Mouse’s willingness, even eagerness, to use violence. This collaboration between Easy and Mouse speaks directly to the dilemma faced by black Americans as they struggle for the appropriate means to obtain justice.
Mosley’s examination of race in America also has a historical dimension. Mosley’s first three novels are part of a projected eight-book series chronicling the history of Watts (and the United States) from 1948 to the early 1990’s.