Like a lot of genres that started up in the recent past, Noir doesn’t have a particularly good track record when it comes to race. Black, Mexican, and Asian characters are usually crude caricatures, one-note villains, or simply don’t exist at all (I’m looking at you, Mob City). With that said, it’s nice to see a writer who bucks the trend, and especially one as good as Walter Mosley. He’s a super prolific writer originally from LA, who is thankfully still releasing great books. Mosley is most famous for his Easy Rawlins stories, which feature a Black private eye in Midcentury Los Angeles, but he’s written tons of other books as well.
Easy Rawlins is probably his most famous character, and it’s easy to see why. Starting with Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy Rawlins has appeared in mysteries that provide a perfect portrayal of a dangerous time and place. Rawlins himself is a dangerous man, a WWII veteran with a bit of a temper which makes him lose his job after he won’t apologize to his racist boss, and he turns to private investigation as a way to make money, but soon finds that he really likes it and is good at it. Rawlins navigates an interesting underworld, and is often caught between the criminals of Watts and the corrupt and vicious LAPD, who see him as a way to solve crimes in the black community. Unlike most private detectives, like Phillip Marlowe and Mike Hammer, Rawlins gets a family in his books, with children that he adopts in his cases and women that he marries. Giving a PI a family could be done horribly, but Rawlins caring for his adopted kids shows that he’s a sympathetic and compassionate guy – and gives him a lot more to lose. Another excellent creation is Rawlins’ best friend, Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander. Unlike Rawlins, Mouse is a pure psychopath, who delights in murder. Still, Mouse is a loyal friend and circumstances often force them to work together, which leads to a fascinating partnership.
I don’t think Mosley is great just because of his portrayal of race in 1950s LA – his mysteries feature crazy violence, blood-soaked plot twists, and lots of truly irredeemable villains – but he does deserve credit for showing a multicultural part of the world that most mystery writers would ignore. Besides the Easy Rawlins stories, Mosley also deals with 50s LA in his Fearless Jones series, which pairs a timid bookstore owner and a tough war veteran, and the story does a great job of showing LA as a diverse place. The main character is in love with a Japanese American secretary and former internee, and frequently deals with a Chinese businessman (who despises the Japanese). Rawlins often works with the Mexican community, who heal him in A Red Death and help protect his interests.
I first got into Walter Mosley after picking up Devil in a Blue Dress in a used bookstore. I liked it so much that now I’ll pick up anything with Mosley’s name on the cover. I think the violence originally pulled me in, as Devil in a Blue Dress depicts a world where hijackers, gun-toting thugs, and assassins like Mouse are commonplace. But the great characters, good writing, intricate mysteries, and social commentary always kept me coming back.
Recommended Reading: Mosley’s written a ton of books and I’m still working on getting all of them read. It’s difficult to pick just one, but I think A Red Death is a good place to start. Taking place in 1953, A Red Death is an examination of the Red Scare, with Easy coerced into investigating a Union leader who may have communist links. It ties into a nearby Black church, and it’s fascinating to see Mosley deal with the hypocrisy of religion. It’s interesting to see the Red Scare and the blacklists from a Black perspective as well. One of Rawlins’ contacts points out that the Red Scare will eventually fade away – but America’s racism won’t. It’s got a great ending, with Mouse being called in, a stomach-churning twist, and an almost tender epilogue. It’s a great place to start.
Recommended Viewing: Unfortunately, there’s really only one adaptation that I’ve seen (though he had a Fearless Jones story in the Fallen Angels anthology series, which I now have to check out), and that’s 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress with Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins. Thankfully, it’s a very good adaptation. The twisty plot works better in a book, I think, where you can take your time and piece it together, instead of being dragged along. However, Washington does a great job with Rawlins, making him a kind of constantly hassled everyman who finally starts fighting back. The real star is Don Cheadle as the psychotic Mouse, who makes him a soft-spoken source of terror. “Look, Easy,” he says, in one memorable scene. “If you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?” It’s a very good example of the Neo Noir genre of films, which will pop up more and more as I keep talking about my Favorite Noirs.
Tomorrow – James Ellroy!