Mosley, Walter (1952—)

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Mosley, Walter (1952—)

Since the publication of Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990, African American novelist Walter Mosley's books have been known as "The Easy Rawlins Mysteries." Mosley changed the face of American detective fiction and became one of America's best mystery writers by introducing Easy (Ezekiel) Rawlins, a black detective operating in a white conservative world. Thus, as Roger Berger has noted, by using black characters and black settings or locations, Mosley rewrites "the traditional white detective story—such as those of Raymond Chandler—through the oppositional use of black subject matter." By using black characters and exploring black concerns such as race and sexuality, Walter Mosley joins Rudolph Fisher and Chester Himes, as the three most prominent black writers of detective fiction. In 1995, Mosley became a more familiar name in American popular culture when Columbia TriStar filmed Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel Washington.

Devil in a Blue Dress is the story of Ezekiel Rawlins, a black war veteran who has lost his job in a defense plant in 1948 Los Angeles. While drinking in a bar, his friend Joppy introduces him to Mr. DeWitt Albright, who wants Easy to find somebody for him. Though Easy hates the thought of going to Albright for further detail, he knows that he has to find money to pay his mortgage, and presents himself at Albright's house. There, he learns that his assignment is to find Daphne Monet, a woman who enjoys "the company of Negroes" and likes "jazz and pigs' feet and dark meat." This would be enough indication that Daphne Monet is probably black, if it were not for her photograph that shows "the head and shoulders of a pretty young white woman." Significantly, the sequence at Albright's home introduces the reader to how Easy deals with racism and how he behaves with white people. When confronted by Albright's guard, he starts to stutter and squint and even feigns forgetting the name of the person he is looking for. Easy then informs the reader that it is a way of conduct he developed in Texas when he was growing up, which consisted of emptying his head of everything every time he was caught off guard by "a white man of authority." Though this mechanism—"The less you know, the less trouble you find"—has become Easy's motto, it has also brought him a hatred of self, and of people in general, both white and black, whom he holds responsible for his feelings: whites for accepting his seemingly dumb behavior as a fact of life, blacks for reminding him that he has to play dumb in front of whites.

Ironically, Easy fails to live up to his motto; the more he learns about his assignment and the people connected with it, the more deeply involved in the story he becomes. When several people start showing up dead, the police suspect that Easy knows who did it, and he is given a deadline to find the killer. More surprises appear when Easy finally finds Daphne Monet and learns that she is Creole and that DeWitt Albright is looking for her so that he can blackmail Mr. Todd Carter, who was supposed to marry Monet, thus ruining Carter's political career. It is worth noting Easy's manipulative talents, especially in persuading the police to believe his story about the murders and their perpetrators.

Thus, while maintaining certain traditional aspects of detective fiction, Walter Mosley explores the issues of race and interracial relations that have remained outside the province of his white counterparts. Mouse, for example, Easy's longtime friend from Texas, explains everything in terms of race; when Easy is on the shoreline north of Santa Monica waiting for DeWitt, a young lady from Des Moines begins talking to him until the boys she is with see this and warn him about talking to their women. Easy himself relates how the American army reflects the segregation of the South, having confined him to a typewriter for three years despite his having been trained as "a foot soldier, a fighter." For Easy, "the worst kind of racism" is the one that occurs when a white person like Todd Carter fails to see a black person in "human terms." Carter invites Easy to tell him anything as if they were best friends, implying his awareness of their "difference." But most of all, Easy believes that "justice for Negroes" can never be achieved without money, "the closest to God," to "grease" the system.

By the late 1990s a highly respected best-selling novelist on both sides of the Atlantic, Walter Mosley had explored his themes, in various plot guises, in five more Easy Rawlins mysteries: A Red Death (1991), White Butterfly (1992), Black Betty (1994), A Little Yellow Dog (1996), and Gone Fishin' (1997). In A Red Death, for example, Easy is in the house business when a racist IRS agent suddenly nails him for tax evasion. As a way out, an FBI agent asks him to infiltrate the First African Baptist Church, which is suspected of communist activities, in exchange for a better deal to pay off his IRS debt. In 1998, Walter Mosley introduced Socrates Fortlow, a new leading man for his new mystery novel, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. Socrates, like his ancient Greek philosopher namesake, tries to find answers to "philosophical questions of morality" in a world warped by crime, racism, and poverty. In 1995, Walter Mosley displayed his versatility by publishing a non-detective novel called RL's Dream.

—Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure

Further Reading:

Berger, Roger A. "'The Black Dick': Race, Sexuality, and Discourse in the L.A. Novels of Walter Mosley." African American Review. Vol. 31, No. 2, 1997, 281-294.