The other side of Chandler's Los Angeles
Regular readers know of my Chandler obsession--the unshakable, near-religious belief that his Marlowe novels and short stories are the most literary works genre ever produced, and contain enough mesmerizing prose and astute social commentary to transcend genre and sublimate to significant works of literature. They are, however, products of their time; nowhere is that more apparent than in Chandler's dismissive treatment of race.
Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress is a text both indebted to and in conversation with Chandler. It takes place in 1940s Los Angeles, stars a hard-nosed, persistent and stubbornly moral protagonist who takes a punch better than he throws one, and centrally involves a femme fatale. But if Chandler's fiction is ultimately about the relationship between corruption and class division in 1940s Los Angeles, then Devil in a Blue Dress is about those same things refracted through the deleterious race relations of the time.
It's an important point of contrast with Chandler, not least because of Marlowe's ambivalence towards the African-Americans he encounters. But it also made me think about the contrast between that time and this one. Though American society has improved, racism-wise, in any number of meaningful ways, Mosley makes the implicit point that in other ways things have gotten worse. Rawlins' LA is a place of economic opportunity, where manufacturing jobs are plentiful and social mobility is possible even for the city's downtrodden. Compare that with American inner cities of today--disproportionate populated by ethnic and racial minorities, and where jobs and opportunity are scarce--and today doesn't look so hot. In that sense, Devil in a Blue Dress is also thematically focused on a death of a specifically black version of the American Dream, which emerged in the immediate post-war days and closed sometime after "white flight" (i.e. re-segregation), de-industrialization and the crack epidemic gutted the American inner city during the 1970s and 1980s.
Howvever, though Devil in a Blue Dress addresses some weighty issues, it never feels heavy. Easy Rawlins is a likable rogue, a borderline drunk and a working stiff who has issues with his boss (who, for the record, is kinda racist). He's a homeowner and proud of it, but also has a problem--if he can't pay the mortgage, the bank will foreclose, and, well, he just told his racist boss where to shove it. Along comes Joppy, an ex-boxer turned speakeasy proprietor who might just have a line on some work for Easy. An old associate, DeWitt Albright, is looking for a white girl who was last seen in Watts. Joppy tells Easy it will be a cakewalk, but Easy has a bad feeling about Albright. But as it turns out, that bad feeling is only the tip of the iceberg...
Devil in a Blue Dress is a smart and perceptive novel whose social commentary blends into the background and never gets in the way of the fun. I certainly enjoyed reading it. At the same time, it does feel like Mosley is still working through the formula here. There are too many murders and, well, too many characters--many of which never really get much in the way of development. As a result, a couple major elements of the plot feel forced. Incidentally, the paperback version I bought also includes a short story, "Crimson Stain," which was written a number of years later and, perhaps uncoincidentally, feels a lot more sophisticated. But if that's what I have to look forward to with this series, then sign me up for the whole thing.
Baseline Assessment: 7/10
Bonuses: +1 for doing social commentary the right way; +1 for bringing race into a literary conversation with Chandler;
Penalties: -1 for excess characters; -1 for "huh?" moments.
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. "A mostly enjoyable experience."
POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator (2012).
Reference: Mosley, Walter. Devil in a Blue Dress [Washington Square Press, (1990) 2002]