Devil In a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (1990) was a fantastic example of the noir genre, and a gritty private eye story from a black perspective. It was fast-paced, the main character was well-drawn, though I felt the supporting characters were not as convincing. The twist was a surprise (although it probably shouldn’t have been). This novel introduced Mosley’s Easy Rawlins character, who stars in more than 10 books.
I’m not convinced that it couldn’t have been set anywhere other than Los Angeles, though. Mosley dropped a lot of street names, but other than Laurel Canyon and one or two streets downtown, they were all in Watts, and all of them–except perhaps Laurel Canyon–could have been pulled from just about any city. There’s nothing distinctively “L.A.” about the setting or the crimes–no water rights stuff, no concrete riverbeds, nothing about the beaches, no palm trees or other flora and fauna, no Hollywood scene or gossip. Heck, there wasn’t even any passing mention of the Watt’s Towers built by Simon Rodia between 1921 and 1954 (the book was set in 1948).
Mosley’s Easy Rawlins characterizes the city as a place where one can work hard and make a good living, and where there is certainly prejudice and racism but not to the extent that he had experienced in Houston (which he says is part of the South).
California was like heaven for the Southern Negro. People told stories of how you could eat fruit right off the trees and get enough work to retire one day. The stories were true for the most part but the truth wasn’t like the dream. Life was still hard in L.A. and if you worked every day you still found yourself on the bottom. But being on the bottom didn’t feel so bad if you could come to John’s now and then and remember how it felt back home in Texas, dreaming about California.
He talks about the heat, but there’s no mention, for example, of the Santa Ana winds–one of the few things I remember from my long ago reading of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, and a distinctly Los Angeles thing. He does mention the fruit trees that are common in southern California:
I loved my little home. There was an apple tree and an avocado in the front yard, surrounded by thick St. Augustine grass. At the side of the house I had a pomegranate tree that bore more than thirty fruit every season and a banana tree that never produced a thing.
And he mentions that everyone has a car, but for some reason he doesn’t really clarify that you have to have a car in L.A.–it’s not like Chicago or New York where you can get everywhere you need to go without one. L.A. is just too big and sprawling–over 400 square miles.
Sophie was a real Southerner, so much so that she could never last in the workaday world of Los Angeles. Because in L.A. people don’t have time to stop; anywhere they have to go they go there in a car. The poorest man has a car in Los Angeles; he might not have a roof over his head but he has a car. And he knows where he’s going too. In Houston and Galveston, and way down in Louisiana, life was a little more aimless. People worked a little job but they couldn’t make any real money no matter what they did. But in Los Angeles you could make a hundred dollars in a week if you pushed.
Easy does go to the Santa Monica Pier, and he mentions that, “There was still a large stretch of farmland between Los Angeles and Santa Monica in those days. The Japanese farmers grew artichokes, lettuce, and strawberries along the sides of the road.” A little later he’s targeted in a racially-charged incident. Certainly some of the typical Los Angeles flavor that’s missing may be due to inherent racism–black folks just wouldn’t have been welcome or felt comfortable in some of the environments that we think of when we hear “L.A.” And perhaps that’s why Mosley included the scene at the Pier–to remind us of that fact.
Mosley’s L.A. also seems to include an improbably large number of transplants from Houston’s underbelly and/or black community who all knew each other in Texas. It almost seemed like Mosley wanted to set the series in Houston but didn’t think a black private eye would get hired by whites there, so he moved all his characters out to L.A. But it could have just as easily been Chicago or New York.
Despite the lack of local Los Angeles flavor, the dialogue and the insights Rawlins gives the reader into being black in 1948 are what really make the book great. Like this example, when Easy becomes tongue-tied when confronted by a doorman at a downtown building where he’s looking for his white would-be employer:
It was a habit I developed in Texas when I was a boy. Sometimes, when a white man of authority would catch me off guard, I’d empty my head of everything so I was unable to say anything. “The less you know, the less trouble you find,” they used to say. I hated myself for it but I also hated white people, and colored people too, for making me that way.
Or when Rawlins is musing about how he was fired when he refused to do an extra shift. The manager, Benny, told Easy he only wanted workers who were willing to do a little extra when needed. Easy had refused because he was already bone tired and knew he’d be liable to make mistakes.
The white worker would have just said, “Sure, Benny, you called it right, but damn if I can see straight right now.” And Benny would have understood that. He would have laughed and realized how pushy he was being. … What I should have done, if I wanted my job, was to stay, like he asked, and then come back early the next day to recheck the work. If I had told Benny I couldn’t see straight he would have told me to buy glasses.
And this is a great quote:
Easy, you gotta have somebody at yo’ back, man. That’s just a lie them white men give ’bout makin’ it on they own. They always got they backs covered.
So, Devil In a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley was an ok addition to my reading challenge for California. It gave a bit of local flavor–my son is actually switching to a school on Laurel Canyon and Ventura in the fall, so that was a fun tidbit for me–but not as much as I’d have liked. In spite of that, it was a pretty good book–I’d read more in the Easy Rawlins series, not so much for the P.I. story, but definitely for the black perspective.