How Walter Mosley’s ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ Changed the Literary Landscape

This week’s California Book Club newsletter: The impact of Devil in a Blue Dress, Po Bronson on navigating the future, and C Pam Zhang’s novel makes NPR’s list of best books.

devil in the blue dress, denzel washington
TriStar Pictures

When Walter Mosley published Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990, it was a revelation. Until that time, few popular novels had addressed Black life in Los Angeles. Yes, there was Chester Himes’s 1945 noir novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, but even Mosley has said, “I came to his work after I began my career as a mystery writer so I can’t say that he’s influenced me as a writer.”

The genius of Mosley’s first book—which Alta’s California Book Club will discuss on December 17—is that he adapted the classic noir genre, made famous by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald, and populated it with Black characters. Suddenly, readers were ushered into a world that had seldom been depicted in fiction: Watts, the historically Black neighborhood of Los Angeles, came alive on the page with Easy Rawlins, Mosley’s private detective, as their guide. Living up to his name, Rawlins was a very easy character for readers to fall in love with. Rather than a bland, heroic figure without any flaws, he’s more an Everyman: a World War II veteran turned factory worker who falls into detective work by accident. He takes up his first job simply because he needs the money to pay his mortgage. (It didn’t hurt that Rawlins also came to life on the big screen, played by Denzel Washington in a 1995 movie adaptation.)

Over the years, Rawlins has emerged as a fully rounded character in a series of novels that take place over decades, beginning in the 1940s. Blood Grove, the 15th novel in the Rawlins series, will be published in February and follows Rawlins into the 1960s, a time of great tumult in the civil rights struggle—as chronicled in Mike Davis and Jon Wiener’s recent book, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, reviewed by Alta.

Happily, there is a new generation of Black authors from Los Angeles who have been blazing their own trails. They include Paul Beatty (joining Alta’s California Book Club on February 18), Danzy Senna and Lynell George (both CBC selection panelists), and Percival Everett. Attica Locke, too, is among them. Born in Houston (Rawlins’s hometown, as it happens), Locke now lives in Los Angeles. She has already published five acclaimed novels, one of which, Bluebird, Bluebird, won the prestigious Edgar Award (also won by Mosley in 2019 for Down the River unto the Sea). Charles Finch praised Locke’s most recent mystery, Heaven, My Home, in his Alta review, writing, “What Locke does so expertly is to bring the personal and the political into balance, without ever, for an instant, sacrificing one to the other…. The result is profound: a novel about crime, politics, and race whose first and only allegiance is to the real human texture of life.”

As much success as Mosley and others have had, though, Locke argues that there is more work to be done. “There needs to be a broadening of the stories being told,” she has said. “Where are the stories where African Americans are just free, where we’re doing something other than playing an instrument or being in service?”

To join Mosley in conversation with Alta’s California Book Club, click here.


decoding the world, po bronson, arvid gupta
Twelve

FUTURE SHOCK

“How do we navigate our future?” That’s the question at the heart of Alta contributor Po Bronson’s latest book, Decoding the World: A Roadmap for the Questioner, cowritten by biotech investor and entrepreneur Arvind Gupta. Bronson tackles some of the world’s most daunting challenges in an Alta Asks Live conversation with Blaise Zerega. Alta


bonnie tsui
Bonnie Tsui

A BEST BOOK

C Pam Zhang’s novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, the October selection of Alta’s California Book Club, was chosen by National Public Radio as one of the 100 best books of the year. Alta contributor Bonnie Tsui also made the list for her book Why We Swim. NPR


c pam zhang
Brian Rea

BONDING OVER JUNK FOOD

Zhang wrote a touching essay about her late father in the New York Times. The first sentence will hook you: “It’s autumn again, the eighth since my father died, and I’m craving chicken nuggets.” New York Times


2020 short story advent calendar
Hingston and Olsen

A STORY A DAY

San Francisco author Lysley Tenorio has a story in the 2020 Short Story Advent Calendar, a gorgeous box set of stories—one for each day leading up to December 25. Actor Patton Oswalt is among the fans of the collection, published by a small Canadian press. Hingston & Olsen


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Alta

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