Devil in a Blue Dress

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In 1948, the first In-N-Out Burger opened in Los Angeles, a harbinger of the car culture that would come to dominate the region. Farmland divided the city from the town of Santa Monica, and the population then fell short of two million. (It was only with the 1950 census that L.A. surpassed Detroit as the nation’s fourth largest city.) During those post-war years, the LAPD was notorious for rampant corruption, police brutality, and unrestrained racism. It’s fitting, then, that Walter Mosley chose to set the first Easy Rawlins detective novel in that time and place. Devil in a Blue Dress is, above all, an unvarnished portrait of African-American life in Los Angeles in the aftermath of World War II. But in a larger sense, the book provides a window on all the messiness of a great city in the making.

Easy Rawlins’ backstory

The author’s perspective

Everybody’s favorite fictional African-American detective “was born poor in 1920 Louisiana and orphaned by the time he was eight. A black child of Southern Louisiana, he jumped a boxcar that took him to 5th Ward, Houston, Texas. He is self-educated in everything from sewing to English literature. Easy is a heroic veteran of World War II and an undeniable victim of American racism; but he’s not the type to give up or to even back down.” Thus Walter Mosley introduces his protagonist in a preface to the 30th edition of Devil in a Blue Dress. This venerable novel was the first of the fifteen published to date in the Easy Rawlins series.

Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins #1) by Walter Mosley (1990) 236 pages ★★★★☆

Street scene in Los Angeles, 1948. Image: Michael R. Smith via Hemmings

The man describes himself in this first Easy Rawlins detective novel

And here is how Easy introduces himself: “I was used to white people by 1948. I had spent five years with white men, and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself. I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was.” Thus, like so many African-American men who served during World War II, he returned to the United States with high hopes that American society would change as he had changed. Knowing all the while that it wouldn’t.

“Easy is an American hero”

Mosley elaborates in his Introduction to this first Easy Rawlins detective novel that describes how the ex-soldier became a detective. “Easy is an American hero. He does not expect recognition, acceptance, or any sense of equality in the land that defines his experience as something other. He knows that he will never be seen as equal to those that believe equality is weighted by color and class, gender and belief. But Easy doesn’t care how he is seen or perceived; as long as they know he is blessed with the willingness to fight back, then the rules begin to tip, ever so slightly, in his favor.”

The makings of a private detective

As Devil in a Blue Dress opens, Easy Rawlins has just lost his job, and he’s now broke. The mortgage payment on the little house he purchased after the war is coming due. But a friend introduces him to an imposing white man named DeWitt Albright, who promises to fix the problem. Albright wants to pay Easy $100—more than a thousand dollars today—to find a missing young woman for a client of his. And that money would keep him in his house for several months.

Although Easy smells trouble and is reluctant to take on the job, he’s desperate and relents. And this decision leads him willy-nilly into a long series of violent episodes that leave bodies strewn throughout Los Angeles. Along the way, as again and again Easy finds himself looking for people who do not want to be found, he decides to become a private detective. And, yes, he solves his mortgage problem.

Mosley writes with spare prose and a deep appreciation for the cadences and diversity of the African-American community. He builds suspense steadily, all the way to a shattering conclusion.

About the author

Photo of Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley (born 1952) is the author of dozens of novels, including the fifteen published to date in the Easy Rawlins series. His more than sixty books also include two other series of mysteries and three science fiction novels as well as five nonfiction books and a slew of other work. Devil in a Blue Dress was his first book and remains the best known, in part because of the 1995 film adaptation starring Denzel Washington. Mosley’s mother was Jewish, his father African-American; he was an only child. Although he was born and raised in California, he moved to New York City in 1981. He now divides his time between Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

Check out 5 top Los Angeles mysteries and thrillers and 10 top novels about private detectives. Also, I previously reviewed (but didn’t enjoy as much) a later entry in the Easy Rawlins series, Charcoal Joe (Everybody’s favorite African-American detective).

For a much earlier fictional portrayal of crime featuring the original African American fictional detectives, see A Rage in Harlem (Harlem Detectives #1 of 6) by Chester Himes (The famous Harlem Detectives enter a comic scene).

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