last updated: 27 January 2019 (approximate reading time: 4 minutes; 762 words)
Devil in a Blue Dress was the first novel by Walter Mosley. Set in 1948, it is the first in the series featuring Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, an African American World War II veteran who has just lost his job and needs money to pay his mortgage. It is a noir masterpiece pulling together threads of race, friendship and betrayal, and political corruption in the context of post-war America.
Rawlins—an African American—is hired by Dewitt Albright, a white man, to find Daphne Monet. She is missing and Rawlins later find that a large sum of money is also missing, having been taken by Monet.
As well as the money, there are several blackmail threads. The main blackmail target is a mayoral candidate forced to withdraw from the race by people with evidence that he is a pedophile.
In the search for the money and with blackmail in the air, people start dying and it isn’t long before the cops can put Rawlins near more than one death. Rawlins has to use his initiative and the weakness of other to extricate himself from the bind.
There are several themes running through the novel; I want to draw out three.
One of the key themes is race. The inciting incident that draws Rawlins into the story is a white man who needs a black man to cross the color line. But the issue is nuanced and cuts both ways—a rich white man can’t marry a woman of color.
People on both sides of the divide are good and bad and people on each side have difficulty understanding the perspective of the other. This is not to imply that Mosley forgives or justifies racism. Quite the contrary—the book considers racism in many forms and from many perspectives.
Another significant theme is friendship, but again, this is not a simple take on friendship with one person standing by another. Every character has their own motivation—sometimes those motivations align with Rawlins', and at others, they directly conflict. There’s loyalty, but that loyalty must be questioned.
Rawlins knows his friend Mouse (Raymond Alexander) will stand by him—and Mouse does. Mouse saves Rawlins' life several times. But Mouse will kill Rawlins without hesitation if Rawlins gets between Mouse and his money.
While diminutive—hence the name—Mouse is a violent man. He kills without hesitation and without conscience. He kills Rawlins' friend Joppy (Joppy Shag), the man who brought Rawlins into the world of Dewitt Albright and Daphne Monet.
Joppy was Rawlins' friend, but he brought Rawlins into a dangerous situation which put Rawlins at risk. Joppy also lied to Rawlins—he withheld crucial information and he actively gave wrong information. But he was Rawlins' friend and he tried to help.
Mouse is also Rawlins' friend and he knew about the relationship between Rawlins and Joppy, but that didn’t lead to any hesitation when he killed Joppy.
Rawlins knew Mouse was a murderer and yet he still called on him to help, understanding that one of the consequences of this involvement may be violence. Rawlins may not have predicted the specific acts of violence (Mouse murders at least three people), but their deaths were a direct consequence of Rawlins' decisions and his friendship with Mouse.
There’s no clear conclusion, but Rawlins is left wondering whether he is just as guilty as the murderer if he keeps a murderer as a friend.
The last big theme that I want to mention is independence. While he doesn’t mention slavery directly, there is an implied link.
The book asks a simple question: what does a person have to do to gain and maintain their independence? Particularly in the context of race and poverty, what does someone have to do be independent?
The answer to the question is seemingly equally simple: lie, steal, and kill. Clearly, this conclusion presents its own challenges.
The book was adapted as a movie in 1995 with Denzel Washington playing Rawlins and Don Cheadle as Mouse. Follow this link to read about the movie, in particular, to read my thoughts about Don Cheadle’s outstanding performance as Mouse and the differences between the book and the movie.
If you haven’t come across Mosley before, you need to change that soon. Like most readers, my favorite series is the Easy Rawlins novels, but I also love the Fearless Jones books and the New York based Leonid McGill series. I get on less well with his science fiction stuff, but that’s just me.