Walter Mosely is one of the early voices in African American mystery fiction, and has continued to be an important voice for decades. He has multiple series that explore the African American experience in a realistic and stark tone that continues to be unique. His characters, Easy Rawlins, Socrates Fortlow, and Fearless Jones, all share a clear presence in their respective environments and a clear-eyed view of the black experience. Devil in a Blue Dress is the first book in the Easy Rawlins series and is an excellent introduction to his works.
It’s 1948, and Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is a former soldier in a bar in the Watts area of Los Angeles. He is broke, out of work, and can’t pay the mortgage on his house. A white man, DeWitt Albright, walks in and asks Easy to find a young white woman, Daphne Monet, known to frequent African-American bars in the city. It seems simple enough, so Easy agrees.
The best mystery novels give an authentic sense of place and time, and Devil in a Blue Dress puts you clearly in the era and the feel of late 1940s Watts. The bar, run by a friend from Texas, has people Easy knows from the South, and there is a sense of community among these transplants like ex-pats in a foreign country. It mimics the diaspora that happened after the war, especially with vets like Easy, who have traveled to Europe and have had their world view broadened by the experience.
Things quickly go awry for Easy, however, as he gets arrested and accused of murder. Once he finds the girl, he uncovers both the real reason behind Albright’s desire to find her, and the girl’s real identity. Aided by a near psychopathic friend named “Mouse” from Texas who shows up halfway into the story, Easy hides the girl and arranges events so he and Mouse come out on top (I apologize for the vague description of the plot. Mosley writes so many twists and turns in the story that I really can only avoid spoilers by giving the sketchiest details).
Operating on the fringes of society and solving mysteries suits Easy, and he realizes he has a knack for the work. His detective work spans thirteen novels, each one a further exploration of the African American experience which runs as a noir counterpoint to other mystery series. Mosley’s prolific writing (forty novels since 1990) and varied genres (he has written mysteries, science fiction, young adult, graphic novels and non-fiction) show his strong presence in the writing world, and serves as a worthy study during Black History Month.
In 1995, this book was adapted into an excellent film of the same name starring Denzel Washington.