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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

IV. The color of crime

Identity Politics: the Private Eye (“I”) in Walter Mosley’s Detective Fiction1

Alison D. Goeller


Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series follows the hard-boiled tradition but also shares with much ethnic fiction strategies for exposing social and economic disparities in the U. S. Crime thus becomes a metaphor for all that is wrong in America, a vehicle for critiquing injustice based on racial discrimination.
Moreover, Mosley’s reluctant sleuth is also engaged in a more important mystery: who he is and where he wants to be in a society that does not value him, a society that makes black men invisible second class citizens. Easy’s personal identity, constantly negotiated and challenged, is the biggest mystery of all, and cracking that mystery becomes the most intriguing aspect of the series. As Roger Berger has argued, Mosley himself is highly ambivalent about his identity as a writer of hard-boiled fiction.

Texte intégral

  • 1 This paper was originally read during the 2001 Tours symposium. A different version enlarged with a (...)

1In a June 2002 issue of Newsweek Malcolm Jones points to the crime novel as perhaps the only real source of contemporary social realism in America. “Once a high-protein staple of the American literary diet,” Jones writes, “social realism fell from favor” (86). Today, according to Jones, “crime writers, black and white alike, are tackling the volatile subject of race with a daring conspicuously lacking in mainstream fiction” (87). So-called ethnic detective fiction in particular, dealing with marginalized, colonized figures, clearly goes beyond mere entertainment, which is primarily why the genre has caught the attention of academics and social historians. Like their predecessors, the hard-boiled novels of the thirties, which, as David Madden suggests in his introduction to Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, deal with an “indifferent, violent, deceptive world” that treats the tough guy “like an object” (xviii), much ethnic detective fiction has imbedded in it strategies for exposing the social and economic disparities that ethnic Americans face. Crime becomes a metaphor for all that is wrong in America, a strategy for critiquing injustices based on racial discrimination. Wayne Templeton, in an article on mystery writer Tony Hillerman, furthers this idea when he says that ethnic detective fiction often deals with two sorts of crimes: the immediate, obvious crimes (murder, usually) which is always solved at the end of the novel, and the “larger, more pervasive, injustices” (38) which are, of course, not resolved. Thus, the detectives’ main purpose, though not always deliberate, is “not solving the lesser crimes but constantly pointing out the larger ones and revealing how they continue to victimize” (39). Taken even more globally, murder can come to represent “a postcolonial metaphor for cultural genocide” (44).

2Few critics, academic or otherwise, would deny that Walter Mosley’s detective fiction is among the most important examples of the genre. Some critics even go so far as to suggest Mosley is carrying on a tradition that goes back to the nineteenth century. A review in The Atlantic Monthly of Mosley’s recent mystery novel, Bad Boy Brawly Brown, for example, connects his work to the great nineteenth century tradition of social critique: “Read together, the Rawlins books... compose a sprawling novel of manners about twentiethcentury African American Los Angeles that owes as much to authors like Dickens and Zola as it does to the aesthetics of noir” (Ulin, 186). The comparison is an apt one; like Dickens and Zola, Mosley clearly uses his novels as platforms for social critique and change. Covering a period of American history from 1939 until 1965, the novels follow Easy Rawlins’s life as an African American “favors man” as he migrates from Texas to Los Angeles after fighting in WW II (Devil in a Blue Dress), becomes briefly involved in communism in the fifties (A Red Death), begins to accumulate property in his attempt at becoming part of the middle class, marries and has a child (White Butterfly), adopts two other minority children (Black Betty), faces the death of his best friend, Mouse, on the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 (A Little Yellow Dog), and finds himself, in Big Bad Brawly Brown, investigating the activities of a young black man involved in a black revolutionay organization. Finally, in the latest novel in the series, Little Scarlet, Mosley explores the issues surrounding the 1965 riots in Watts as Easy tracks down the murderer of Nola Payne as well as several other black women who have been having affairs with white men. Mosley has indicated in interviews that one of his goals in writing the Easy Rawlins books was to educate his audience about the history of black Americans in the twentieth century (Woertche, 117).

3Influenced by the Marxist literary theorist and critic George Lukács and having studied political theory at The University of Massachusetts, Mosley is also clearly interested in exposing the “voracious maw of capitalism’ (See his essay Workin’on the Chain Gang: Shaking off the Dead Hand of History [2000, 16]), a theme that shows up in most of his novels in one form or another. In Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), the first novel in the series, for instance, Easy, a recent veteran of WWII who is eager to build a new life for himself in Los Angeles, is fired for refusing to kowtow to his white boss at Champion Aircraft. Easy recognizes what is at stake financially in his refusal, but his integrity and his insistence on being treated like a man and not a boy overpower his desire for economic (middle class) stability. “A job in a factory is an awful lot like working on a plantation in the South” (62), Easy tells his readers. In A Red Death Easy is understandably attracted to the Marxist Chaim Wenzler, who schools Easy in the injustices of a capitalistic system: “We are all of us trapped, Mr. Rawlins... trapped in work. If you can’t pay the rent you die” (132). Later in the novel, Jackson Blue echoes Wenzler’s sentiments when he says to Easy:

So the banker and the corporation man gots it all, an’the workin’man ain’t got shit. Now the workin’man have a union to say that it’s the worker makes stuff so he should be getting’the money. That’s like com’unism. But the rich man don’t like it so he gonna break the worker’s back (197).

4Easy’s social and economic predicament (a result of his dealings with the white world) brings to mind yet another metaphor. I would like to suggest that in detecting the “lesser crimes,” Easy is more importantly trying to solve his own personal mystery which is who and where he wants to be in a society that does not value him, where he is invisible, or at the very least treated as a second-class citizen. His personal identity, which is constantly being negotiated, constantly being challenged, is, then, the biggest mystery of all, and cracking that mystery becomes the most intriguing aspect of the series. Mosley himself recognizes this: Easy, he says,

has taken on a tough job in the real world: he’s trying to define himself in spite of the world, to live by his own system of values. He’s trying to do what is right in an imperfect world. The genre may be mystery, but the underlying questions are moral and ethical, even existential (Mosley, “The Black Dick”, 133).

5Easy’s name belies his situation since his life is anything but easy. Living in L. A., the favorite stomping grounds of the hard-boiled detective, Easy becomes a “favors man” who takes on sleuthing because he needs the money to hold onto the property he has been (somewhat unlawfully) accumulating, a necessary commodity in a capitalist society, his passport to the middle class: “I felt that I was as good as any white man, but if I didn’t even own my front door then people would look at me like just another poor beggar” (9). Ironically, it is Easy’s desire for a conventional life that plunges him into the work of a hard-boiled detective, complicating his situation because of the tension between his middle class aspirations and his attraction to the “mean streets.” Easy is also seduced by his trickster-like capacity to dart in and out of cheap bars and juke joints, making small talk to gather clues. “Nobody knew what I was up to and that made me sort of invisible; people thought that they saw me but what they really saw was an illusion of me, something that wasn’t real”, he tells us in Devil in a Blue Dress (128). Easy is a good sleuth because, as the white cops and crooked businessmen tell him, he can go places they cannot because he’s a black man; he knows the territory. In fact, Easy becomes “Mr. Rawlins,” a respectable shift in identity, when his white clientele want a favor from him. And, finally, Easy is forced into sleuthing in order to prove he is not the criminal, an accusation that repeatedly occurs not just because he’s usually found at the scene of the crime but also, of course, because he is black: “I had been seduced, hoodwinked, and blamed for a thief; I’d been bullied and looked at like a crook instead of an honest man. I could have gone home but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep” (45). In the latest of the series, Little Scarlet, Easy has his own part-time private practice (“Research and Delivery ”) and is approached by the police because they fear an investigation by white cops in Watts immediately following the riots could set off more trouble. Easy is still characteristically reluctant to help them out, so the cops threaten to turn him in for practicing without a license. Even though “the white man’s grip on my throat was losing strength” (17), Easy finally agrees because he feels an obligation to help his people, in this case, black women.

6His smooth shifts from street dialect to standard English to suit the situation and the ease with which he can supply phoney names for himself and for others further indicate his negotiating identities, a strategy which in this case produces positive results because it helps him solve the crimes. But these shifts also produce problems for Easy. His use of white English for example, is, according to Theodore O. Mason, a subversive act, as is Easy’s desire for property: “Both acts move one into the realm of transgression, the zone of dangerous instability” (179). Daphne Monet, the “devil in a blue dress” whom Easy has been hired to find, is his perfect trickster double in this respect, which is one reason they are attracted to one another:

Daphne was like the chameleon lizard. She changed for her man. If he was a mild white man who was afraid to complain to the waiter she’d pull his head to her bosom and pat him. If he was a poor black man who had soaked up pain and rage for a lifetime she washed his wounds with a rough rag and licked the blood till it staunched. (183)

7Even more dramatic, her hair color, her eye color, and her language change throughout the novel, and eventually Easy discovers she’s not French at all but a light-skinned black woman named Ruby. Although Easy’s physical appearance does not change as dramatically, his language and manners do: he readily admits to shifting from standard English to street dialect when it helps him uncover crucial information and “exploits his Southern roots and manners to gain information” (Gruesser, 243). So just as Daphne tries to “pass” for a white woman, Easy does his share of passing in order to carry out the job of sleuth.

8Unfortunately, as John Gruesser points out in his analysis of Easy as a signifying detective, Easy’s trickster self often alienates him from his own black community: “juggling linguistic and social codes to deceive both white and black characters ” (Ibid., 235), intensifying his deceptive personality. In other words, Easy is invisible in both the black and white worlds. As Mouse, Easy’s evil best friend, says to him, “You just like Ruby.... She look like she white and you think like you white. But brother you don’t know that you both poor niggers” (Mosley, 1990, 205).

9In A Red Death Easy’s identity is further complicated when, after being caught for tax evasion, he makes a deal with the FBI to spy on an alleged communist union organizer, Chaim Wenzler, a Polish American Jew who is working at the First African Baptist Church. Like his fictional cousins, Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Easy finds himself seduced by communism’s appeal to the working class and by the parallels Wenzler draws between Jews and American blacks, both economically and socially, particularly when Wenzler reveals to Easy that his own brother had been hanged by the Nazis. This, of course, reminds Easy of his own people’s bloody history:

I’d seen lynchings and burnings, shootings and stonings. I’d seen a man, Jessup Howard, hung for looking at a white woman. And I’d seen two brothers who were lynched from two nooses on the same rope because they complained about the higher prices they were charged at the county store. (Mosley, 1991, 136)

10Easy makes a further connection when he discovers the body of Poinsettia Jackson “hanging from the light fixture in the middle of the ceiling. She was naked and her skin sagged so that it seemed as if it would come right off the bone any second” (63-64). When he eventually figures out that Poinsettia was murdered for not paying her rent, he realizes just how right Wenzler has been in connecting capitalism with oppression. More importantly, he realizes, towards the end of the novel, when someone takes a shot at him, that all he has suffered personally is perhaps because he “wasn’t, and hadn’t been, my own man” (203).

11Easy’s shifting of identities becomes especially problematic when it spills over into his personal life. This is most apparent in Mosley’s third novel, White Butterfly. Now married and the biological father of Edna and the foster father of Jesus, a Mexican American boy whom he has rescued in from child prostitution, Easy appears to want to settle down and be a family man. But his shifting identity and attraction to invisibility seem to preclude this desire. Never a clear hero, Easy drinks too much, cheats on his wife with his best friends’ partners, including Mouse’s ex-wife, Etta, and finds it nearly impossible to be honest with his wife about his finances. After he has become a legitimate property owner by working as a sleuth and saving money from various jobs, he still refuses to tell Regina where his money is coming from, and this, unfortunately, leads to the dissolution of his marriage and the loss of his biological daughter, Edna Regina, understandably, simply cannot tolerate his unwillingness to be open and honest with her. Easy knows he is wrong to hide the source of his income from Regina because it prevents them from having an intimate relationship and makes him feel lonely. Just after Regina hangs up on him, he thinks: “When I cradled the phone I felt very lonely. All of what I had and all I had done was had and done in secret. Nobody knew the real me” (Mosley, 1992, 179). Some critics have suggested that perhaps the reason Easy is so secretive is that Mosley is caught in the hard-boiled tradition where the sleuth must necessarily be a loner, must be secretive. But later, in A Little Yellow Dog, Easy offers us an explanation for his secrecy when he blames his cultural background: “Where I came from you kept everything a secret-survival depended on keeping the people around you in the dark” (200).

12The most mysterious and troubling aspect of Easy’s multiple identities, however, both for the reader and for Easy, is his capacity for violence. Although living in Watts as an African American male is reason enough to explain this, there is still within him a potential for evil that cannot be blamed on outside sources. As Mosley himself has said in an interview about Easy, “It’s not only outside oppression from the world but inside he is really held back” (Silet 13). Mosley has also said that he didn’t want Easy to be a hero: “I hate setting up heroes that we can’t really live by. You know, real people make mistakes, have flaws, do the wrong thing...” (14), but, in fact, there often is not much dividing Easy from the criminals he is investigating. It is no mistake that his best friend is Mouse, whom Easy describes as “the darkness on the other side of the moon” (Mosley 1994, 77), a man who shoots first and doesn’t bother to ask questions, a man who kills his stepfather over money and probably has killed his real father as well (see Gone Fishin’). He is Easy’s shadow side, someone Easy could easily turn into and nearly does in A Little Yellow Dog. Mosley, in several interviews, has defended Easy’s behavior, noting that “ignorance and violence, sex and criminality are deeply etched in Hispanic and African hues” (“The Black Dick” 132). That may well be true, but, as Roger Berger has noted, such behavior does not subvert the stereotype of black male sexuality; it exemplifies it. Thus, though we may understand where Easy’s “relentless misogyny” (Berger, 288) comes from, his behavior nonetheless severely undercuts our admiration of him. As one reader told Mosley: “I read your first book and I’m going to read the next, too, because I want to figure out why Easy’s such a jerk!” (Silet, 16).

13There are numerous examples of Easy’s capacity for violence. The most troubling one is the scene in White Butterfly when Easy and his wife, Regina, have sex just after she has confronted him about where all his money is coming from. Although the description of their lovemaking is admittedly ambiguous —“She gave in to my caresses but she wouldn’t kiss me. I rolled up on top of her and held her head between my hands. She let my leg slip between hers but when I put my lips to hers she wouldn’t open her mouth or her eyes. My tongue pushed at her teeth but that was as far as I got (Mosley 32)— both Regina’s labeling of it later as rape and Easy’s own association of it through a dream with one of the rape/murders he is investigating point to a violent and dark element in Easy that is, to say the least, unsettling:

Regina was leaning up against the tree with both hands. Her skirt was hiked up above her buttocks and a large naked man was taking her from behind. Her head whipped from side to side and she had a powerful orgasm but making the same kind of strange noises that Bonita Edwards made (34).

14However, Easy’s violent side is temporarily put on a shelf in the fourth novel, Black Betty, when he is seriously wounded and finally forced to get off the streets and come to terms with his messy life. Having moved out of Watts into a better neighborhood with Jesus and Feather, the mulatta daughter of Cyndi Starr, the White Butterfly whose death he had been investigating in the previous novel (her mother had been killed by her own grandfather for bearing a black child), Easy appears to have settled into a more stable life. This is echoed in the parallel historical event mentioned in the novel, the election of Kennedy as President, and the references to Martin Luther King, Jr. In other words, Easy’s situation, like the nation’s, seems to be on the upswing. Furthermore, as the foster parent of multiracial children, Easy also points to the possibility that racial lines are breaking down in America. Moreover, his reading of Huckleberry Finn suggests a kind of negotiating yet comfortable status, for he finds no difficulty in identifying with both Huck and Jim: “I could have been either one of them” (13), he tells the reader. As more and more blacks are buying property, Easy even attempts to build a black shopping mall, Freedom’s Plaza, hoping to break through the color line in commercialism. But his plans are thwarted by the white city bureaucrats who want his property for a sewage plant (71).

15In A Little Yellow Dog, Easy loses his taste for real estate deals. We find him, instead, the head custodian at the Sojourner Truth Junior High School, working with an Italian Chinese secretary and a blonde Negro from Iowa and giving orders to whites. However, his tenuous self-identity once more manifests itself in violence and secrecy as he comes dangerously close to exchanging roles with Mouse, who is now out of jail and trying to lead a crime-free life. “Somewhere on the lineup I had become invisible again. I’d taken on the shadows that kept me camouflaged, and dangerous” (Mosley, 1996, 156). As William Nash has pointed out in his article, “Maybe I Killed My Own Blood: Doppelgängers and the Death of Double Consciousness in Walter Mosley’s A Little Yellow Dog, “Easy begins his movement back towards the streets as Mouse self-domesticates by taking a job as a night watchman at the school where Easy has been working as head janitor and by giving up the street life” (304). In a passage that strongly suggests that Easy and Mouse have exchanged roles, Mouse tells Easy: “but right now I just wanna see what it’s like to live wit’your family an’work at a job.... I’m lookin’for a new way –that’s all” (257).

16Ironically, it is Mouse who identifies Easy’s existential problem: “a nigger ain’t never gonna be happy ’less he accept what he is” (Mosley, 1990, 205). But, of course, the question for Easy, the same question Ellison’s famous narrator faced, is “Who am I?” Or, more importantly, “Who do I want to be: the tough, hardboiled, streetwise invisible undercover sleuth or a loving, responsible, and hard-working father?” As he is coming out of one of the clubs he has so loved haunting, Easy thinks: “I wondered if there was a place for me that could be like this and still allow me to hear the children’s laughter in the morning” (186). Trying hard to be like his namesake, Ezekiel, the Hebrew prophet who called for the Jews exiled in Babylon to return to godliness and faith, Easy’s quest for a place in the world has, nonetheless, been arduous and uncertain. The little yellow dog reminds him of his capacity to slip over the edge: “As the days passed I began to accept him as part of my life; the dark, dangerous part that always threatened. As long as Pharaoh was around snarling and cursing I’d remember the kind of trouble that a man like me could find” (307).

17With the presumed death of Mouse at the end of A Little Yellow Dog, Easy could well be on his way to a new life and a solution to his personal mystery. In the second to last book of the series, Bad Boy Brawly Brown (2002), which takes place in 1964 during the Viet Nam War with America on the brink of the civil rights movement, we see an Easy who has in many ways grown up. Now 44, and still the head janitor at Sojourner Truth Junior High School, he has given up smoking and drinking and seems to have settled down with Bonnie, the flight attendant whom he rescues at the end of A Little Yellow Dog, and his two adopted children, Feather and Jesus. Although he still is attracted to other women, Easy rebuffs their sexual advances because “in maturity our minds are sometimes able to short-circuit those impulses” (291). Indeed, he does seem to have a more mature view of relationships between men and women: “I never talked to my first wife. Back then I thought that a man was supposed to be strong and silent” (56). We learn that his increasingly strong commitment to his family comes from his father, who, before he deserted the family when Easy was eight, had taught him that “a real man will know that he has to overcome anything that gets in the way of him caring for his family” (149). As in the previous novels in the series, his personal and professional progress parallels that of his own people. “It had only been in the past few years that I could talk back without fear of losing my job, or maybe even a tooth or two” (142). He thus stands up to the white principal at the junior high school when he is chastized for missing work and even orders his workers to put back furniture that the principal had ordered moved (139). He also feels an increasingly strong sense of social responsibility for his people: “I was the man in charge of burials. I was the gravedigger for all the dead black men and women” (126). In short, he seems to have come a long way in his quest for personal identity.

18But he hasn’t completed his quest for personal self; in some ways, the old Easy remains. He is still, of course, attracted to the mean streets:“If I were living the life that I had promised myself,” he tells the reader, “I would have gone home and tucked the kids into their beds” (95). Like Odysseus, who he resembles in many ways, he continues to lie, indeed it “feels good to be lying again” (284) and to play the trickster, believing that he must to survive. In fact, he compares himself to Isaac Newton, “a man living in shadows in almost every part of his life. A man who keeps secrets and harbors passions that could get him killed if he let them out into the world” (266). He also recognizes that his background as a poor black man in “the streets and back alleys” has cultivated in him a knowledge of the human psyche that “most cops would give their eyeteeth to understand” (213). In a discussion with Bonnie about his search for Brawly, the connection between his sleuthing and his personal quest becomes especially clear. He tells Bonnie that if he can just find “the old Easy,” he’ll be able to crack the case. But Bonnie knows that for Easy the most important mystery is not where Brawly is but where Easy is. “what you should be doing is finding yourself, not this boy” (204), she tells Easy. Of course, that’s what Easy has been unconsciously trying to do all his life.

19Perhaps the strongest indication that Easy still struggles with his identity is his obsession with Mouse’s death and his guilt feelings. There are many hints in the book that Mouse might still be alive, a possible indication that Easy himself doesn’t want to let go of his shadow self. In other words, as long as Mouse exists, in Easy’s mind or in reality, Easy will never completely relinquish his life on the “mean streets.” The connection between Easy and his creator seems relevant here. As Roger Berger has so astutely argued, Mosley himself seems ambivalent about his identity as a writer. In “‘The Black Dick’: Race, Sexuality, and Discourse in the L. A. Novels of Walter Mosley, “Berger asks whether Mosley’s novels are “authentically transgressive tests, or... discursively subsumed under the detective story formula” (281). That is, Berger sees the novels as “metacritical allegories that reflect a fundamental ambivalence about his own intervention into white (detective discourse)” (281) and notes an “unresolved (and, perhaps, unresolvable) tension between Mosley, the African American detective writer, and Mosley, the American hardboiled detective novelist” (286). Thus, says Berger, “Mosley’s division of his detective into two is symptomatic of his own ambivalent feelings about the genre” (292).

20In the last of the Easy Rawlins detective novels so far, Little Scarlet, many of Easy’s ambivalent feelings seem to be resolved. Now 45 and living in “peaceful West L. A.” (5) with his girl friend Bonnie and his two adopted children Feather and Jesus, Easy has settled into his head janitor’s job at Sojourner Truth Junior High School, with part-time real estate and sleuthing ventures. Although he is still hounded by the police from time to time (despite the letter he carries with him as a kind of badge proving he is working for the cops), he now more readily stands up to white authority because, particularly after the riots, he realizes, that “I was tired of policemen stopping me just for walking down the street” (43). As Janet Maslin suggests in her review of Little Scarlet, “the burning of Watts becomes a direct manifestation of Easy’s long suppressed, no longer tamped-down anger” (1).

21Significantly, the riots and his overt anger seem to engender in Easy a political leaning we have rarely seen before as he realizes that “almost every black man, woman, and child you meet feels that anger” and that “this riot was sayin’it out loud for the first time” (78). Easy still slips in and out of street dialect to gain information, still gives phony names and wears clothes that help him blend into a crowd, even going so far as to disguise himself as a homeless man in order to find Harold, the bum he suspects of murdering all the black women. And he still feels invisible to whites.

22But like America in the mid-1960’s, Easy has changed. For one thing, his understanding of both himself and his people is much deeper. “I began to see that my history with white people was much more complex than I had thought it was. On the one hand Margie had ignored my existence, and on the other I scared her to death” (122). Just as Mouse, his doppelganger, and Jackson Blue are trying to lead respectable lives and hold down legitimate jobs, Easy thinks perhaps he, too, has to “let go of the order of things that I had always known” (172). One indication of this change in the order of things is the scene in the sanitarium where Easy goes to talk to the aunt of Nola Payne, the murdered woman, the “Little Scarlet” of the book’s title. When he accidentally touches one of the white nurses who has information that could lead to the killer of Nola as well as the other murdered black women, Easy feels as though some “taboo that had governed her people and mine for hundreds of years” had been broken (35).

23Moreoever, when he discovers that Jocelyn Ostenberg, Harold’s mother, has been passing as a white woman, down to her powdered face and all-white living room, and passing Harold off as her maid’s son, Easy’s reaction illustrates his growing ability to understand the roots of self-loathing and the dynamics of racism:

I didn’t hate her for hating herself. If everybody in the world despises and hates you, sees your features as ugly and simian, makes jokes about your ways of talking, calls you stupid and beneath contempt; if you have no history, no heroes, and no future where a hero might lead, then you might begin to hate yourself, your face and features, your parents, and even your child (255-56).

24That the Watts riots represent a kind of rite of passage, an Odyssean journey to the Underworld, is underscored when Easy visits Mama Jo after the “wrong Harold” (222) beats him up. As a kind of Circe figure, “a woman of great power and knowledge: a witch by anyone’s definition at any time in the history of mankind” (224), Mama Jo heals Easy with her magic elixir and then sends him on his way, feeling “like I could go out and run a ten-mile race” (227). More importantly, he thinks maybe his “mind somehow had been altered to leave behind all of my history, clear my eyes, a man cut loose from his own private anchor of hate” (238). Thus, as Watts is restored to order and the neighborhood cools down, so does Easy’s anger abate.

25But not his determination to keep on fighting for his own dignity and the dignity and respect he believes his people deserve. Not only does he save the day by finally convincing the white cops of Harold’s guilt; he now insists that Suggs, the good white cop, have more respect for him and for black women. As he says to Suggs, “I don’t like bein’ called ‘boy’... and I don’t like our Negro women to be called girls” (239). In an almost comical moment that hints at better things to come between blacks and white, he even manages to get Suggs to bring him coffee and doughnuts.

26At the end of the novel Easy is a hero in many respects beyond merely solving the crime. He rescues Benita Flag, Mouse’s girlfriend, from a suicide attempt, helps the Steinmans relocate to a new shoe shop, for which he’s given “ancient riding gear” (273), aids Jackson Blue in getting a well-paid, respectable job, and sends Juanda, a young woman whose sexual advances he has successfully rebuffed, off to college with money Mouse has given him.

27But we probably haven’t heard the last of Easy Rawlins. Now that he has a legitimate license to practice sleuthing, thanks to the L. A. Police Department, Easy most likely will continue his adventures. Like Odysseus, who according to Tennyson was not content at Penelope’s side but planned “to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/Of all the western stars, until I die” (612), Easy probably won’t be content with settling down, just as his creator, Walter Mosley, shows every sign of a kind of artistic restlessness, an unwillingness to be labeled. Not only has he admitted he doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a writer of hard-boiled novels; he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as any kind of writer. In addition to the now eight Easy Rawlins detective novels, Mosley has written one science fiction novel, Blue Light (1998), a novel based on the life of blues guitarist Robert Johnson called R.L.’s Dream (1995), two novels featuring Socrates Fortlow, ex-con and grass roots social activist in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1998) and Walkin’ the Dog (1999); Fearless Jones (2001), featuring a new detective, a slim volume of social history, Workin’ on the Chain Gang (2001) and numerous short stories. He has also had a play, Since You Been Gone, produced in workshop by the Hartford (Connecticut) Stage Company. “It’s important,” Mosley says, “for black men and women, especially black men, to write in all genres.... We need popular fiction that can say important things you want your children and your people to read ” (McKanic, 19).

28Identity, then, for both Easy and Mosley remains a continuous process, not a fixed site, contingent on all the elements that both include them and exclude them. It is a complex entity, if, in fact, it can ever be called an entity. Writing about identity in a postmodern world, Stuart Hall, in his introduction to Questions of Cultural Identity, says this:

The concept of identity... is not an essentialist, but a strategic and positional one. That is to say, directly contrary to what appears to be its settled semantic career, this concept of identity does not signal that stable core of the self, unfolding from beginning to end through all the vicissitudes of history without change, the bit of the self which remains always-already “the same,” identical to itself across time. Nor-if we translate this essentializing conception to the stage of cultural identityis it that “collective or true self hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves’ which a people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common”... and which can stabilize, fix or guarantee an unchanging “oneness” or cultural belongingness underlying all the other superficial differences. (Hall, 1996, 3-4)

29Such a position, however, can only be advantageous because, as Hall has said in another context, the tension resulting from the negotiation of multiple identities enriches debate since “it holds theoretical and political questions in an ever irresolvable but permanent tension. It constantly allows the one to irritate, bother, and disturb the other, without insisting on some final theoretical closure” (2001, 1907). So although the overt mysteries in Mosley’s novels are always solved, his protagonist’s personal mystery, his identity, remains elusive, shifting, and tenuous. And Mosley himself remains elusive. Perhaps his status as the son of an African American Southern born father and a Jewish mother from New York may have something to do with his interest in identity politics as well as his desire not to be fixed as one kind of writer or another, one kind of human being or another. But certainly both Easy’s and Mosley’s elusiveness are precisely why they engage us as they do.


Works Cited

Berger, Roger A. 1997. “‘The Black Dick’: Race, Sexuality, and Discourse in the L. A. Novels of Walter Mosley.” African American Review 31. 2, 281-295.

Gosselin, Adrienne Johnson. 1999. Multicultural Detective Fiction: Murder from the “Other” Side. New York: Garland.

Gruesser, John Cullen. “An Un-Easy Relationship: Walter Mosley’s Signifyin(g) Detective and the Black Community.” In Gosselin, 235-255.

Hall, Stuart. 2001. “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies.” Reprinted in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 1898-1910. New York: Norton.

Hall, Stuart, and Paul Du Gay, eds. 1996. Questions of Culural Identity. London: Sage.

Jones, Malcolm. 2002. “It’s Black, White — And Noir.” Newsweek, June 24, 86-87.

Madden, David, ed. 1968. Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties. Carbondale: Southern Ilinois University Press.

Maslin, Janet. “Anxiety Rises from the Ashes of Mosley’s Smoldering City.” New York Times Book Review 5 July 2004.

Mason, Theodore O., Jr. 1992. “Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins: The Detective And Afro-American Fiction.” Kenyon Review 14.4, 173-183.

McKanic, Arlene. 1999. “More Than a Man of Mystery. Black Issues Sept./Oct, 16-19.

Mosley, Walter. 1990. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York: Pocket Books.

— 1991 “The Black Dick.” Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing. Ed. Philomena Mariani. Seattle: Bay P, 131-133.

— 1991. A Red Death. New York: Pocket Books.

— 1992. White Butterfly. New York: Pocket Books.

— 1994. Black Betty. New York: Pocket Books.

— 1995. R.. L. ‘s Dream. New York: W. W. Norton.

— 2004. Little Scarlet. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

— 1996. A Little Yellow Dog. New York: Pocket Books.

— 1997. Gone Fishin’. New York: Pocket Books.

— 1998. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. New York: Pocket Books.

— 1998. Blue Lightning. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

— 1999. Walkin’ the Dog. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

— 2000. Workin’on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History. New York: Ballantine.

— 2001. Fearless Jones.. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

— 2002. Bad Boy Brawly Brown. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Nash, William. “‘Maybe I killed my own blood’: Doppelgängers and the Death of Double Consciousness in Walter Mosley’s A Little Yellow Dog. In Gosselin, 303-324.

Silet, Charles L. P. 1993. “On the Other Side of Those Mean Streets: An Interview with Walter Mosley.” The Armchair Detective 26. 4, pp. 8-19.

Templeton, Wayne. “Xojo and Homicide: The Postcolonial Murder Mysteries of Tony Hillerman.” In Gosselin, 37-59.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “Ulysses.” Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Ed. by Laurence Perrine and Thomas R. Αrp. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1993. 611-612.

Ulin, David L. “A Grand Contrivance.” The Atlantic Monthly 290.1 (2002): 186-191.

Woertche, Thomas. 1994. “Interview mit Walter Mosley.” Sirene 12/13, 115-123.


1 This paper was originally read during the 2001 Tours symposium. A different version enlarged with a discussion of Tony Hillerman’s fiction was published in Dorothea Fisher Hornung & Monika Mueller, Sleuthing Ethnicity. The Detective in Multiethnic Crime Fiction (Madison, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 2003). The original version presented here has been updated to include a discussion of the Easy Rawlins series’latest novel, Little Scarlet.


Teaches American literature and creative writing for The University of Maryland’s European Division in Heidelberg, Germany. Her articles include “Temporary Homelands,” an essay on women’s travel literature (University of Bologna, “Illness as Metaphor: The Italian American Experience in Tina DeRosa’s Paper Fish,” (MESEA), “What Homer Never Told Us: Robert Graves’s The White Goddess and the Poetry of H.D.” (The Journal of the Robert Graves Society,) “Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding as Pastoral,” (Interpretations), “Persephone Goes Home: Italian American Women in Italy,” (MELUS), and “From Rage to Reason: Race and Politics in Walter Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow Novels,” (CAAR). She is also the co-editor of EmBODYing Liberation: The Black Body in American Dance, a collection of essays (Lit Verlag). She is also a published writer of fiction.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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