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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

IV. The color of crime

It’s always a little piece of language that sets off a novel”: A Linguistic Analysis of the Opening Chapter of Walter Mosley’s White Butterfly

Gérard Deléchelle


A linear linguitic analysis of the opening chapter of White Butterfly shows how the atmosphere of the novel is gradually created with the presentation of the reluctant Easy Rawlins and his relationships with the police (black and white). The study of this short chapter also reveals some of the characteristics of Mosley’s writing.

Texte intégral

“One sentence and then another...”

Preliminary remarks

1Critics have emphasised the part played by linguistic considerations in Walter Mosley’s novels. Mosley himself, in an interview given to The Observer (April 11, 1999) about Blue Light, stressed that “It’s always a little piece of language that sets off a novel.”

2This quotation justifies some of the choices made here. For a linguist, the focus must be put on the writing, on “the quest for the signs which enable us to discover the suffering of the voice at work in a text” (Gault, 1994, 6, my translation). Although White Butterfly is the third novel of the Easy Rawlins series, we will try to mime an initial reading by putting ourselves in the position of the reader who encounters this hero for the first time.

3Instead of proposing an analysis of the whole novel, we’ll only study the first chapter (120 lines), followed in their linear development in order to define its texture and voice:

For every book has “its” voice or voices. The first pages of a work reveal its tone, accent, rhythm, range, color and depth. “Who speaks”, “where from”, “what for”, “how” and “to whom”? Answering these questions at length, discovering the key to this mystery would largely dissipate the enlightening obscurity of fictions at the risk of extinguishing their fires (Chénetier 321, my translation).

4This contribution should be seen mainly as a methodological exercise yielding partial results to be exploited and elaborated, from a literary point of view for instance. But our initial quotation suggests that Mosley does not treat the linguistic aspects lightly.

Text analysis

5A quick glimpse at the presentation of the introductory chapter brings out a graphic break, as the narration shifts from the arrival of a black policeman, Quinten Naylor, at Easy Rawlins’s home, to the discovery of the dead body of a young woman.

Easy Rawlins and Quinten Naylor negotiating identities

6“EASY RAWLINS!” someone called. Our attention is immediately drawn to the name and particularly Easy. Anyone familiar with the series will recall Easy’s full first name, Ezekiel, which carries biblical overtones. A reader fresh to the series will inevitably be tempted to take it literally and to imagine various traits of character evoked by the adjective, such as a certain detachment or on the contrary as an invitation for the hero to keep his cool. When his baby daughter Edna repeats her father’s name with a lisp, “Eathy”, it sounds as a sort of tender and ironic echo which reinforces the idea of playfulness associated with the child (cf. as she played peacefully), but that is denied by the relationship with this intruding someone. The opening sentence that draws attention to this person called Easy also betrays a very clear narrative choice: it is this character who will tell the story in the first person in internal focalization.

7Easy’s surprise is marked by the use of the indefinite pronoun, someone, as the origin of the call has not yet been identified, but also, and probably less obviously, in the syntax of I turned to see Quinten Naylor twist the handle of my front gate. Here to does not express purpose, a desired consequence, but an unexpected one (as in: I came in, only to see that he was gone) creating an effect of surprise. Besides, the verb twist marks the feeling of aggression felt by Easy Rawlins, the intrusion impinging on his privacy in his family background: my front gate. This image is reinforced by the idyllic character of the scene of the caring father looking after his daughter playing next to him on the porch.

8Easy’s description of Quinten Naylor is linguistically telling. We first note that the only verb used is to be (eight occurrences). Rather than a stylistic flaw, it draws the reader’s attention to the predicate, in particular to the comparisons and metaphors: his hands were the size of potholders, his shoulders were round melons, it was almost as if he were rage-colored. The choice of the comparers (potholders//round melons), attributable to Easy, denotes bumbling bulk and shapelessness. It is in this passage that the policeman is first given his full name Quinten Naylor to be next called three times by his first name, which proves a fairly close relationship between the two men. Only later do we learn that he belongs to the police (the Los Angeles police sergeant), an indication also found in the more reverent officer Naylor or Officer used to address him in dialogue and finally the cop (a slang word that reduces him to a mere function, the “man” in African-American parlance). He will also be described as the violent-colored man. Conversely, it is also interesting to see how Quinten’s way to address Easy goes from familiarity to respect (Easy // Easy Rawlins // Mr. Rawlins). For these fluctuating modes of address reflect the constant battle for dominance between Easy Rawlins and Quinten Naylor, and more generally between the various characters.

  • 1 See different examples in P. Gault, “Rhématique/Thématique ou les élans de la syntaxe”, Graat 21, T (...)

9Easy very quickly indicates Naylor’s skin colour, a proof of the essential role played for him by ethnic considerations. Quinten is not black, but a brown man. When Easy evokes Naylor’s growing anger (there was a lot of red under the skin), the colour notation introduces an ironical dimension also found in the unexpected compound adjective that comes up in as if he were rage-colored. In fact, as will be seen later in Quinten was becoming visibly more crimson under his brown shell, the colour of the skin is only an outside appearance under which many things may happen. What was only a hypothetical comparison (it was almost as if he were rage-colored) will soon be presented as factual and be rapidly integrated in the form of another compound adjective: The violent-colored man. This evolution is reflected in the syntax and in particular in the passage from a rhematic construction (as if he were rage-colored) to a thematic one (the violent-colored man), a technique which is an important factor in textual cohesion.1

10Whereas Easy first insisted, albeit with a certain irony, on Quinten Naylor’s physical strength, the picture gradually becomes less congenial: the police officer is not only presented as violent, but he dares to tread on a patch of chives fondly grown for seven years! Easy is beginning to get angry, as can be felt in his description of Naylor’s hand, a beefy paw, that denotes not only strength but also bestiality. This shows the ambiguous character of the relationship between Easy and Quinten, whose sentence “Glad I caught you in” (and in particular the verb caught) might be interpreted in different ways by Easy whom the police always make uneasy.

11The insistence on exchanged looks (I looked into his eyes // he stared into my face) shows that the two characters are observing and getting the measure of each other. This is reinforced by the heavy silence which establishes itself between the two men who are unable to express what they really want. This mutual embarrassment, stubborn suspicion and distrust, is reflected in the intricacies of the syntax: two complex sentences coordinated by but, each containing the verb want (He stared up into my face wanting me to ask him why he was there. But all I wanted was for me to go back into my home with my wife and children). The opposition between the two protagonists is thus more obvious in the syntax than in the words actually exchanged. Rather than merely stating the existence of rampant enmity, Mosley invites readers to draw their own conclusions.

  • 2 Note here the use of the temporal-causal use of when.

12In this initial confrontation, it is Easy who has the upper hand; he steps down to meet Quinten and his silence makes the cop uncomfortable (When I didn’t say anything there was an uncomfortable moment for the Los Angeles police sergeant).2 He even seems to take some pleasure in the situation: his laconic answers (Yeah - Yeah. - She sure is) do not really help his interlocutor who cannot go beyond the phatic function of small talk (Beautiful child). Easy even ironically comments on Quinten’s speech (Quinten was from back east, he spoke like an educated white northerner), another point on which they are opposed.

13Even if it is Easy who puts an end to this cat and mouse game by finally accepting to ask Naylor (whom he calls officer) the reason for his visit, he remains in control of the situation. He greets the answer with some derision by asking whether he is under arrest, which harks back to the use of caught, although it might also be taken literally, Easy never being really sure of being on the safe side of the law. The result of that game is that Quinten now feels obliged to address Easy as “Mr. Rawlins” at a price for his self-respect, a social and personal humiliation. Easy comments explicitly on the situation and seems to take some pleasure in the fact that the Los Angeles Police Department has to ask an (almost) black cop to call on a black civilian to penetrate the ghetto, which gives us an opportunity to appreciate Easy’s sense of formula when he sarcastically thinks: I was worth a precinct full of detectives when the cops needed the word in the ghetto, a quality which might also be attributed to the authorial voice, though it is mainly Easy’s voice that we are hearing. Easy extends his advantage even further to the limits of politeness when he says in his own variety of black speech: I don’t need no Sunday drive with the cops, which infuriates Naylor.

14Easy here appears as a lucid, detached and flippant observer as is shown by the use of visibly in Quinten was becoming visibly more crimson under the brown shell. But just when one might have expected Easy to make the most of his advantage and refuse the offer, he accepts it, out of compassion for a brother, a fellow black whom he does not want to humiliate, even though he is a cop, the word shell inviting us to look for the man underneath. Besides giving more consistency to Easy’s character, it introduces an element of surprise in the plot.

  • 3 Note the concision of adverbial sequences like: out back // back east // out front.

15For lack of space we’ll pass more quickly over the end of the scene which completes the portrait of Easy in his family surroundings. This interlude has a dual function. On the one hand, as it keeps Quinten Naylor waiting a little longer, it is a textual device that underlines the gap between the two men, Easy’s un-ease. On the other hand, it makes Easy appear as a good family man, generous enough to have adopted a young mute Mexican boy —but not a perfect husband: Macho-like, he just shouts from the outside3 to his wife (who is ironing) that he is leaving, and entrusts the security of his wife and daughter to little Jesus.

16An arresting aspect of this passage is its fairly slow rhythm. It also presents a recurrence of the isotopy of vision and detection in social relationships: peek // look up here at me // Jesus squinted up at me // looking me in the eye this time. It of course exploits the archetypes of the hard-boiled: the laconic hero with a shrewd look and outlook on people and life. The passage also shows the flexibility of Mosley’s prose passing from the terseness of: Come on down here to the analytic fluidity of The little Mexican boy climbed down the tree and ran up to me, with alliterations and paronomastic effects like with a silent smile stitched across his face. As for Easy’s remark, I waved at my forty-foot avocado tree, it is yet another elliptical way to stress that Naylor (and the intrigued reader, too) are intruders in Easy’s world: only later do we learn that Jesus serves as a lookout up the tree.

The discovery of the victim

17The second part of this introductory chapter confirms the efficiency of Mosley’s prose. The word Officer (Naylor) with which the paragraph begins seems to place us at once in the midst of the inquiry. The general indications on the location of the scene, the vacant lot where the as yet unseen body lies, are seen through Easy’s eyes. He draws our attention (I noticed) to a detail, no doubt overlooked by the police: a meticulously described shoe (so the reader does not miss it): a bright patent-leather white pump in the gutter that serves as a proleptic indicator from a narratological point of view. At this stage and during most of the passage, the reader will have the impression that he is ahead of the narrator-cum-character.

18So step by step, on the paratactic mode, we discover the first elements constituting the scene: the ambulance (foreboding trouble) flanked by police patrol cars. Flanked may be taken literally, but it also alludes to the work done by the police to isolate the victim for reasons yet unclear. Easy notes both the number (seven) and the skin color (exclusively white) of the policemen who constitute a cordon (shoulder to shoulder across) preventing the onlookers from having access to the scene; and the festive atmosphere which will also have to be reinterpreted when the body has been identified. All these details function as proleptic indicators.

19The scene is first presented in a parodic tone (the lot was decorated with two rusted-out Buicks) in clear contrast to the underlying tension that the reader anticipates —and as if Easy’s mind was unconsciously refusing to accept reality. The presentation of this dilapidated lot in fact foretells and provides a natural setting for the bad news to come. The tension is suggested by the syntax of the next sentence informing us that a knotty oak had died toward the back end of the lot. Instead of a banal wording like “there was a dead oak at the back of the lot”, the use of the active form of the verb die with an inanimate subject invites us to restore a human subject, an indirect means of introducing the presence of a victim, engraved in the folds of syntax as it were. The way has been prepared for the discovery of the body, although it is yet only second or third hand information or rumour: A boy said, “Lloyd saw’er. She dead.”

20In this inevitable march towards what we begin to expect or fear, Easy, and the reader with him, still have an obstacle to overcome, that of everyday ordinary racism. Seeing a black man nearing the cordon, a policeman grabs his arm in a rude and condescending way: “Hey you, son”, the word son depriving Easy of his status, which obliges Quinten to call him Mr. Rawlins for the second time. One should note that Easy does not respond and treats that disrespect and arrogance (which he considers instinctive) with the contempt he reserves for other white people in similar situations. In fact, his attention concentrates on the four policemen who are looking towards the tree. Once more, the form of the sentence is more important than its content to give us access to what the narrator feels. The construction: I couldn’t make out what it was that they saw is a mixture of cleft sentence (a focalizing structure of the form it is X that Y) and an indirect question (or headless relative) what they saw. The intricate character of the sentence reflects Easy’s uncertainty.

21Before getting any closer, Easy recognizes one of the plain-clothes policemen whose description might be compared to that of his black counterpart Q. Naylor. Like Quinten, he is massive in build, but with the difference that Hobbes is fat all over: He was a burly white man, the kind of fat man who was fat everywhere. Once more, the impression given by the contact of the policeman’s hand is unpleasant, a feeling stressed by the inventive imaging: He held out a pillowy hand. The indefinite article reinforces the characterization that follows. Easy refers to this policeman as: One of the cops // Roland Hobbes // Roland. This unexpected familiarity may be due to the fact that Hobbes does not show an overt scorn for Easy, whom he calls Mr. Rawlins. Besides, each use of Roland appears in contexts where Naylor is also mentioned by his first name.

22Easy pays little attention to this extended hand as he proceeds towards the tree, the centre of his and everybody’s interest. So it is through Easy’s eyes that the reader discovers a young woman wearing a party dress, sitting peacefully at the foot of the dead oak tree. At first sight, the scene seems natural and the alliteration in a pink party dress rather reassuring. But gradually, in small touches, the description takes on a different signification. A closer look might have shown some disturbing details like the adjective open in: a little open at the breast, which could apply to the dress but also to the body and thus suggest a wound. Besides, the straight legs, a little apart, the head tilted to the side and the position of the hands are not as natural as they might have seemed. But the main clue is that one foot is bare while the other one sports a white pump. The parallelism of the construction: her left foot // her right foot, is offered to us without comment. If the sentence seems to begin on a fairly light descriptive mode (Her left foot sported a white pump), it ends abruptly on the adjective bare (her right foot was bare), which opens onto more disturbing interpretations.

23The description is rendered even more complex when Easy associates in the same memory the feeling of softness and strength from Hobbes’s hand and what he (wrongly) believes to be an insect perched on the girl’s temple. An illusion in both cases. Just as there is no insect on the girl’s face, one wonders whether Easy does not transfer to Hobbes’s hand a softness that he unconsciously attributes to the girl. This confusion of feelings, a sign of disorder in Easy, is also due to the uncertainty of memory, as can be seen in the use of tenses. I remember the softness and the underlying strength of Roland Hobbes’hand, the only occurrence of a present tense in the narrative parts of the text, refers to the (present) time of enunciation, whereas the preterit in I wondered why she did not bat it away two lines later takes us back to the time of the event. It is this instability of syntax and of referenciation that gives us access to Easy’s loss of his bearings.

  • 4 The past participle dried refers to the action more than the adjective dry, which would insist on t (...)
  • 5 Unlike the descriptions of the policemen, no indication of skin colour is given in relation to the (...)

24What follows confirms the emotion that has now taken hold of Easy (and the reader). For he suddenly realizes that what he (mis) took for an insect is a clot of dried blood.4 The use of the be + ing form stresses the dissociation and contrast between the character who has nothing but platitudes to spout to Hobbes (Nice to see you) when shaking his hand, and the one who later realizes and must finally admit that he is actually facing death. The moment of consciousness over, Easy tries to analyze what has just happened to him, but for the reader the main interest lies in this mounting emotion, the dimension of affect which is also brought to light in the transformation of a woman in a pink party dress into a nice young girl: The girl was young and pretty. It was hard for me to think that she was dead.5 By contrast and interwoven with Easy’s thoughts, the fairly detached but laconic comments exchanged by the two policemen are much more prosaic and evoke with a remarkable linguistic economy a serial killer: Same thing // Both? // Third one, a concise remark on which the chapter closes and which creates a sense of suspense for the reader. The chapter which had started with two words Easy Rawlins, ends the same way (Third one). The loop is closed.

Concluding remarks

  • 6 “I look for the undersong when I start a text. What is the music that underlines the narrative, nev (...)

25Although brief, this excerpt is sufficient to discuss some of the characteristics of Mosley’s writing, his “little undersong” in Jerome Charyn’s words.6

26Even if his novels seem to follow some of the archetypes of the mystery story with serial killers, corruption and the rest, Mosley subverts the codes if only by the personality of the main protagonist. Easy is not a traditional, classical detective and his methods are rather personal. As in the other Easy Rawlins mystery novels, Mosley uses period details and slang to create authentic settings and characters, especially Easy, the earnest, complex, reluctant amateur what? Neither a detective nor the usual type of informer. A keen observer, laconic, fairly detached and often ironical, he knows how to judge blacks and whites alike. He knows the ghetto section of L. A. as no policeman can and is himself faced with personal, social, and moral problems. Of course, this should be substantiated by a study of the whole novel to see how Mosley adapts and subverts these codes.

27In this opening chapter we see at least two facets of the character. First, the tough street wise black concerned with who he is in relations to others, wife or child, brown or white outsiders. Then, a sensitive person perturbed by the discovery of the dead body of a young black girl. But Easy does not put his sensitive self into words: the language, as we have seen, brings that into the reader’s consciousness.

28Mosley’s writing has the power of suggestion. While the construction, progression and rhythm of the narration, appear to be fairly classical, the economy of the language is striking. In this kind of language, the unsaid, the implicit speak more than any word can. Detective fiction is reputed to be easy reading, but the passage we have studied denies this reputation. When it is the choice of words, of images, the syntax, in short the poetics that give the reader access to the main issues of the text, the problem is no longer to know whether it is a mystery novel or any other genre. It’s just literature. As Mosley himself said in the interview already mentioned: “Sentences and the way they are crafted is the basis of what a novel is.”


Works Cited

Charyn, Jerome. 1994. “Desperately Seeking for the Undersong.” In Effets de voix. (GRAAT n° 12.) Tours: Presses Universitaires de Tours (pp. 41-55).

Chénetier, Marc. 1989. Au-delà du soupçon. Paris: Seuil.

Gault, Pierre. 1994. “Les Souffrances de la voix.” In Effets de voix. (GRAAT n° 12.) Tours: Presses Universitaires de Tours (pp. 5-15).

— 1999. “Rhématique/Thématique, ou les élans de la syntaxe.” In Recent Trends in Narratological Research GRAAT n° 21. Tours: Presses Universitaires de Tours (pp. 207-223).

Mosley, Walter. 1994 (1992). White Butterfly. London: Pan.


1 See different examples in P. Gault, “Rhématique/Thématique ou les élans de la syntaxe”, Graat 21, Tours, 1999

2 Note here the use of the temporal-causal use of when.

3 Note the concision of adverbial sequences like: out back // back east // out front.

4 The past participle dried refers to the action more than the adjective dry, which would insist on the resultant state.

5 Unlike the descriptions of the policemen, no indication of skin colour is given in relation to the victim. It is only indirectly (the disinterest of white policemen, the empathy of Easy for the girl) that we may guess that she must be black.

6 “I look for the undersong when I start a text. What is the music that underlines the narrative, never mind the meaning, what is the music?”, J. Charyn, “Desperately seeking for the undersong”, Effets de voix, Graat 12, Tours, 1994, 42-43


Honorary Professor of English linguistics at Université François-Rabelais de Tours, has written on various aspects of the grammar of English, in particular on the syntax and semantics of causative constructions and connectors and on text linguistics.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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