American literature features some killer first lines, and here’s why Walter Mosley belongs right up there with the best spinners of them, from Toni Morrison to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar.”
That’s how Mosley introduced us to Easy Rawlins 30 years ago in Devil in a Blue Dress. Mosley was 38, it was his first published novel, and, carried by Easy’s warm, skeptical, brilliant voice, Devil launched one of the best hard-boiled mystery series of the 20th century. So much seethes in that one line: the easiness of its tone and the unease of its content; the segregation of the times and the arrival of something new.
The book gets off to a hot start. It’s 1948, and Easy (born Ezekiel) Rawlins is home from World War II, where he fought alongside white, Japanese, and other Americans at the Battle of Normandy. But now the gates of prejudice are rolling back up, even in so-called paradise. Casual, persistent racism is everywhere in Los Angeles; it’s part of why Easy lost his job at Champion Aircraft—a problem because he has a mortgage and likes to pay his bills.
Enter this white man with an errand. A woman—named Daphne or Delia; Easy can’t keep it straight—needs to be found. And Easy can look in places this white man can’t. He can also probably get this done quietly. Against his better judgment, but also because he was raised on a sharecropper’s farm in Texas, Easy takes the man’s money and sets out across the city to ask a few questions.
This moment, where a noir novel lays bare its vivid access to a place, is one of the genre’s great delicious pleasures. Mosley feasts on postwar L.A. in Devil in a Blue Dress, conjuring up the city’s fractured past, the virulent segregation. The play of light through windows on an afternoon spent trying to drink away one’s personal history. We follow Easy between tense interactions with whites and more genial ones with Black residents at work, in poolrooms, in illegal nightclubs.
One can feel Mosley working in the slipstream of Chester Himes and Raymond Chandler here. The fury and the style of each inform his voice, but there’s a lot that’s new, too. Easy is indeed easy in situations that ought to cause distress, with white bullies on the beach, cops who pick him up and shake him down for information. But he’s no simple errant knight: he has a vulnerability and disquiet that make this book a profound study of the limits of masculinity as a pose. A bracing one, too, as Mosley shows the constant adjustments Easy must make for white men’s expectations of him.
As in all hard-boiled mysteries, what begins as a simple question—where’s the girl?—unravels a secret network of crimes and dependencies. In a good series, a hero traverses the city so much figuring them out that the writer remaps it, makes the place their own. Mosley does this and some, but he goes much further. Writing with great sensory delight, poise, and a wicked sense of humor, he upends L.A. and finds pockets of Houston and Galveston, not to mention many other elsewheres.
In other words, he restores the city to its rightful complexity—and gives us a Virgil we’d follow just about anywhere, to do anything, talk to anyone, or simply spend a day with drinking vodka and grapefruit soda, napping and waiting for the sun to go down. Thirty years on, Mosley’s book is every bit as vital and glorious—and, sadly, every bit as uneasy about the safety of its hero.