Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Devil in a Blue Dress: Walter Mosley

The first book in Mosley's Easy Rawlins series, Devil in a Blue Dress, has an interesting setting:... 1948, post WWII, a black neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins is a black man who moves to Los Angeles, California from Houston, Texas to look for a better life after serving in the military during World War II. He gets involved in a search for a beautiful white woman because he needs the money to pay his mortgage, and ends up trying to save his life by figuring out what is going on.

The character development is very good. Easy is human with frailties and strengths, and I felt his confusion and pain and fear. Living a life as a black man in LA at that time was challenging, to put it mildly.
"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."
Easy has plenty of friends and acquaintances in the area, many of them transplants from Houston. One friend is Mouse, who he has avoided for years because of his extremely violent and amoral behavior. Yet, Easy feels he has to call on Mouse for help in this situation.

I read this for the Social Justice Theme Read at Resistance is Futile. Thus I was more tuned in to the issues of racism than I might have been otherwise. I found I was paying more attention to examples of his treatment as a black in a white world. I wish I could say it was shocking to me, but even in today's world, it is not surprising to hear of discrimination and police brutality such as described in this book. And so many times, the way blacks are treated with disrespect is almost unconscious.
"A job in a factory is an awful lot like working on a plantation in the South. The bosses see all the workers like they're children, and everyone knows how lazy children are. So Benny thought he'd teach me a little something about responsibility because he was the boss and I was the child.
The white workers didn’t have a problem with that kind of treatment because they didn’t come from a place where men were always called boys. 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 and offered to take Mr. Davenport, or whoever, out to drink beer. But the Negro workers didn’t drink with Benny. We didn’t go to the same bars, we didn’t wink at the same girls."
Another place where racism and prejudice played a big part was in the military service in World War II. I knew this. Even so, the brief descriptions of this period of Easy's life were most appalling to me. Prior to the beginning of World War II, the United States Army was segregated. Many black soldiers were not allowed to participate in combat and were relegated to support jobs. Only as the war neared its end did they allow blacks to join in units at the front.
"They said we didn't have the discipline or the minds for a war effort, but they were really scared that we might get to like the kind of freedom that death-dealing brings." 
And then he returns to a country where he is still subject to discrimination.

This taste of Walter Mosley's writing has me eager for more. Which is a good thing since I have copies of the next three in the series, plus the first book in the  Leonid McGill series.


Bill Selnes said...

I have not read any of the series. Your review makes me think they would be good reading.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Tracy, this looks like a very stark novel about interracial conflicts and social prejudices during and long after WWII. It's interesting that modern writers continue to explore sensitive themes like these and still manage to say something new.

Anonymous said...

Tracy - I am so glad you enjoyed this book. To me, Mosley is one of the most talented authors out there at creating atmosphere and drawing complex characters. The stories depict life in a real - even stark - way but without being 'over-the-top.' Thanks for this excellent review.

TracyK said...

The book was good reading, although not always pleasant. I am glad I finally started the series.

TracyK said...

I am looking forward to the rest of the series because I have read that it jumps a few years with each book, thus moving forward to more recent times. I think that is going to be interesting.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Margot. Yes, he is very good at atmosphere. It was interesting to get some contrast between Texas and California at the time, even though none of the book is set there. I am re-watching the movie soon, it has been a long time since I saw it (1999). I am eager to see what parts of the book were included and how issues were handled. I remember Mouse very well, but that is about it.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Really enjoyed the review TracyK, thanks. I read this one when it came out and thought it was pretty good and weaved the race theme very nicely into the plot, though admittedly I did foresee the main twist as a result as it seemed a logical development. I have found some of his later books a bit disappointing, not least for the way that Mouse is used to conveniently tie up loose ends, a bit too much like Hawk in Robert B. Parker's Spenser books

TracyK said...

Thanks, Sergio. I think I will enjoy the remaining books for the atmosphere and the race theme as much as for the mystery. I hope so, anyway. I do have reservations about Mouse's character; would prefer him as a one book wonder. Haven't read the Spenser books.

Unknown said...

Great review! I especially appreciate the passages you quoted. It's disturbing to think these things went on (and still go on sometimes)!

Thanks so much for sharing this book with the Social Justice Theme Read this February! :)

TracyK said...

Thank you, Rachel. The racial bias in the book is disturbing, and I like the way that these issues can be presented in a mystery.