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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

IV. The color of crime

Of Race and the Witch Hunt in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death

Daniel Peltzman


The Easy Rawlins series covers three decades of from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. A Red Death is perhaps the most political of all as it focuses on the effects of the McCarthy witch hunt. The essay argues that the period’s deleterious atmosphere ruined solidarity among the oppressed, while black political activists advocating an exodus from the US were fighting the wrong fight. The unmentioned stirrings of the civil rights campaign suggests that black political apathy was strong.

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1If one chooses not to include Gone Fishin’ in the series, Easy’s literary life, from Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) to Little Scarlet (the latest issue published in 2004), covers about two decades from the post World War II years to the aftermath of the 1965 riots, a period when the nation was making crucial political choices. Black Betty and A Little Yellow Dog do mention John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but A Red Death is arguably the most “political” of all, with its picture of Cold War obsessions, the fear of Communist infiltration and of unpatriotic persuasions, that serve as a background for home-made treason and guilt, and infect the relationship between characters of different ethnic origins.

  • 1 Unless otherwise specified, all page references are to the 1992 (London: Serpent Tail) edition of A (...)

2Easy once again needs to find his way out of a situation beyond his control, although (as a trickster caught at his own game) of his own making through his fiscal dishonesty. Easy’s treachery, especially his awareness of it, “I made like I was friends with people and then I planned to do them dirt” (276),1 fictionalizes the negative facets of social mechanics in a racist society. This essay therefore sets out to study the representation of the witch hunt’s impact on minority characters. Secondly, keeping in mind the interference between history and fiction, we will see that Mosley’s characters are not part of the militancy that was soon to develop in the country: the novel does not bear testimony to the then gathering impetus of the civil rights campaign.

3Unsatisfied as they are with their lives, these people are –mostly– politically apathetic.

4The novel is set in 1953 in Los Angeles. Easy Rawlins, a Second World War veteran earns his living by “doing services” around town. He also earns an income from the apartments he purchased with the shady payoff he garnered at the close of Devil in a Blue Dress. He actually employs Mofass for a front man in this business. Mofass collects the rents, does the dirty work (such as evicting insolvent tenants) while Easy poses as the janitor, because he has failed to declare his ownership to the IRS. Rawlins is summoned by tax inspector Reginald Lawrence, whose aggressive and racist attitude puts our hero in a delicate situation. The only way for him to avoid prison is to agree to become a spy for the FBI: agent Darryl Craxton who is hunting for information on Wenzler, needs his services. Wenzler is a Communist activist and unionist formerly employed in an aeronautical plant, but now involved in collecting used clothing that is resold to benefit the charities run by an African-American church. Against his will Rawlins accepts the FBI’s deal and forms a friendship with Wenzler.

5The detective element of the novel comes into play when Rawlins discovers the body of Poinsettia Jackson, one of his tenants on the point of being evicted, and who has apparently committed suicide. Following the investigation, the police conclude to a murder and suspect Rawlins. Two further murders are committed in the church itself and Rawlins is again among the first witnesses to find the body of Reverend Towne and a woman called Tania Lee. Held under arrest this time, Rawlins is eventually freed thanks to the intervention of Agent Craxton, now more eager than ever to use him to obtain information on Wenzler. With some regret Rawlins gets closer to the Communist activist and makes the acquaintance of his daughter Shirley. When Wenzler is in turn murdered, Rawlins realizes that Mofass and Lawrence have been pulling the strings to do him in. He exposes the assassin, none other than the tax inspector, and when the latter is on the point of killing him, he is rescued by Mouse, a childhood friend and the husband of Etta Mae, his school sweetheart, with whom he envisages starting a new life. At the end of the novel the hero is home safe and dry but is now alone. So he asks Mofass to remain his friend.

6The above synopsis shows that treason (here engineered by government officials) occupies a predominant place. Mosley pictures the steps of a reluctant spy at a time when hundreds of witnesses, willing or not, were becoming informers –or, seen from the other side, “government witnesses”. In order to exculpate themselves by proving their loyalty to God and country, they denounced colleagues or friends. However, in the vast majority of cases witnesses were forced to testify in order to save their careers or to avoid prison. An official summons could spell instant personal ruin (Navasky, 6-45).

7In the novel the summons before the tax inspector produces the same effect. Rawlins knows he is on the verge of serious problems with the law. He shows his awareness that he has been denounced to the tax office when he says to one of his friends, a bar tender, “Some people been talking ‘bout them buildin’s I bought a while back” (51). Thus, he has no choice but to collaborate with the FBI. When he meets Chaim Wenzler he realizes that he has been caught in a trap which fills him with disgust: “And I was afraid of what I might do to save myself from jail” (144). He is no longer a free agent. He must obey the two government officials who have now become his masters (one must note the racial overtone): “Craxton and Lawrence had me so worried about my money and my freedom that I had become their slave. At least Mouse and Chaim acted from their natures. They were the innocent ones while I was the villain” (148). This loss of identity constantly haunts him, making him feel abject. He knows, however, that his well-being can only come from the betrayal that will bring about the fall of his friend, even if later he longs for a solution that would enable him to avoid prison whilst at the same time helping Wenzler escape the clutches of the FBI. When he is finally led to reflect on this tragedy, he sees that his role as a spy and his indirect responsibility in the murders will haunt him for the rest of his life: “Chaim was my friend and he was dead. Poinsettia was my tenant and she was dead too. One way or another both deaths were my fault. Even if it was only because of me not telling the truth or no having compassion when I could have” (235).

8In this frame of mind, his request that Mofass continue as his employee (and friend!) helps indict a society where, against reason and feeling, people must build bonds that deny the existence of trust, or even racial solidarity.

9To a certain extent, Mosley echoes Dalton Trumbo, the novelist and screenwriter who was blacklisted from 1947 to 1960. Towards the end of his life Trumbo received the Laurel Awards for a Lifetime’s Achievement. During the ceremony he gave a speech in which he recalled this period of inquisition and fear, referring more particularly to the blacklists:

The blacklist was a time of evil, and no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to [...] It will do no good to search for villains or heroes because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange (Trumbo, 569-70).

10Mosley depicts a similar situation: when all is said and done, Rawlins clearly sees he has been dragged into a process beyond his control and which makes him all the more a victim as he is conscious of the hurts he has inflicted. In the same way as Trumbo did with the Hollywood community, he forgives Mofass for his betrayal.

  • 2 See (among others) the very moderate Daddy Was a Number Runner (Louise Meriwether, 1970), or God Bl (...)
  • 3 The historian Helen Schrecker states that most of the Jewish American members of the Communist part (...)

11Contrary to what one might expect, A Red Death is silent on the long history of difficult relations between African-Americans and Jews, the Jewish ghetto landlord or shopkeeper versus the black tenant or customer.2 Whereas one could expect the novel to show difficult relations between African-Americans and Jews, there is nothing such here. The deep friendship between Rawlins and Wenzler is based on their past experiences in their respective countries. Wenzler is a prototypical Communist American Jew who is ardently involved in political activism, devoid of any form of racism and for whom the Communist party remains the only hope against war and intolerance. However, Mosley does not describe a Jewish American who has been established on American soil for some time.3 Wenzler is originally from Vilne in Poland and joined the Communist resistance after the Nazi invasion. Betrayed by the terrified members of the Jewish community, he decided to fight for the Soviet side, “the soldiers of the people,” even if the Red Army stood by as the Warsaw ghetto was fighting to the bitter end (143).

12From their first meeting onwards, Rawlins cannot prevent the friendship with Wenzler from forming whilst he knows he must betray him in spite of the ethnic histories that haunt both their lives: pogroms and Nazi persecution for Wenzler, American racial violence for Rawlins.

13Wenzler is the first to articulate the existential bond between them. He is committed to continuing the fight against injustice: “And that’s why I’m here,” Wenzler said. “Because Negroes in America have the same life as the Jew in Poland. Ridicule, segregated. We were hung and burned just for being alive” (110-111). In his eyes the Communist party constitutes the only defense against anti-Semitism and racism. Although he participated in the liberation of Camp Dachau, Rawlins, needs more time to sense his way to the community of feeling with Wenzler. It is these common tragic experiences which have made them both atheists. Each for his own yet similar reasons, they have rejected God or rather God has rejected them. For Wenzler this results from the torment of war, and for Rawlins from his father’s deserting his family. The hero, because of his friendship with Wenzler, cannot erase the Holocaust from his mind. Asked by the church elders to destroy a red-ant nest, he uses poison and observes its effects on the insects:

I saw no more than four of them actually die, but I knew that the hives were full of the dead. I knew that they had fallen where they stood, because the poison is very deadly in close quarters. Like in Dachau when we got there, the dead strewn like chips of wood at a lumberyard. (150)

14This terrible memory of the war brings him to confront his role as an informer. The horrors of the Holocaust and his childhood steeped in a climate of racism reminds him that he must betray his friend whose days may have just as well ended in Dachau.

15This past which links the two men is constantly evoked until the end of the novel. When Rawlins unmasks Lawrence as the assassin and asks him for the reasons which pushed him to commit these crimes, his only reply is, “Niggers and Jews” (272). In this way, even after Wenzler’s death, Rawlins and Wenzler remain inseparable. The two men personify two communities, unfortunately made to submit to a hatred that leads to murder.

16The political aspects of the novel take into account the ambiguous relationship of the Communist party with the African-American community. The Communist party was without a doubt one of the rare political movements that sought to improve the lives of African-Americans. In 1931, several members of the African-American community joined its ranks to acknowledge the party’s effort in supporting the nine African-Americans accused of rape in Scottsboro (Carter, 167-169). During the Depression, the Communist party perpetuated an image of a Soviet Union in which there existed no form of racism. Soviet society then became the model to follow to achieve the same results in the United States. During the fifties the members of the Party fought to abolish segregation and discrimination that was raging all over the country, North, South and West. Nevertheless, it is necessary to put into perspective the influence of the Communist party on the whole of the African-American community. It never attracted a great number of African-American followers with the exception of certain intellectuals (Schrecker 32-33). This paradox is omnipresent in Mosley’s novel where many reasons that could account for the party’s lack of success are given. Most of the time it is Rawlins who brings to light the political context and the repercussions this has on the plot. Allusions to anti-Communism can be seen from the third chapter onwards, when Rawlins brings up the political contradictions and simplifications that mixed traditional American isolationism and Cold War propaganda with racial consciousness:

Back then we thought we knew who the enemy was. He was a white man with a foreign accent and a hatred for freedom. In the war it was Hitler and his Nazis; after that it was Comrade Stalin and the communists; later on, Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese took on an honorary white status. All of them bad men with evil designs on the free world. (24-25)

17Contrary to Easy’s later posture as a disillusioned realist, his early political self is confused and removed from militancy. Distorted political views, such as hammered in by the system at large, are further illustrated, rather caustically, in the same chapter when LaMarque, Mouse and Etta Mae’s son, is watching television at Rawlins’s. He learns of the arrest of one Charles Winters, charged with stealing classified documents from his government office. The boy then asks Rawlins questions that catch him off guard. After first trying to evade the question, he replies by emphasizing his disinterest for politics in general and ultimately comes up with a reply fully attuned to the anti-Communist propaganda of the period:

“What’s a comanisk, Unca Easy?”
“What, you think that just’cause this is my TV that I should know everything it says?”
“Uh-huh,” he nodded. LaMarque was a treasure.
“There’s all kindsa communists, LaMarque.”
“There’s one there,” he said pointing at the television. But the picture of Mr. Winters was gone. Instead there was a picture of Ike in the middle of a golf swing.
“That kind is a man who thinks he can make things better by tearin’ down what we got here in America and buildin’it up like what they got in Russia.”
LaMarque opened his eyes and his mouth as far as he could.
“You mean they wanna tear down Momma house and Momma TV up here in America?”
“The kinda world he wants, nobody owns anything. It’s like this here TV would be for everybody.
LaMarque jumped out, balling his little fists.
“LaMarque!” Etta shouted. “What’s got into you?”
“Comanisk gonna take our TV!” (33-34).

  • 4 The unvoiced taunt, an evanescent Communist followed by the golfing president should not be missed: (...)

18Such a representation4 of the effects of anti-Communist propaganda taking hold of a child’s mind does more than simply denouncing the nation’s foreign policy paranoia. As the novel has it, propaganda wormed its way into the black community’s world view. When Reverend Towne (though not obviously a Communist sympathizer) declares in a sermon that it was “Satan that led [the U. S.] in war against the Koreans and the Chinese” (92-93) and provoked the deaths of many young men, his flock demur. Even Etta is made uneasy by Reverend Towne’s stand:

Everywhere people were grumbling.
“What do he mean? What can I do?”
“A minister ain’t no politician, that’s illegal.”
“We cain’t hep it.”
“Communists are against God. We gotta fight’em.”
Etta turned to me and took hold of my hand. She said, “Take me home, Easy.” (93)

19When Agent Craxton informs Rawlins of his mission, the latter no longer fully understands the international positions of his country. The Soviets, once allies of the United States, have become their worst enemy. Above all, he cannot understand how political commitment can lead to a person’s ruin. He is baffled, thinking of Paul Robeson whose career was shattered after his pro-Communist statement (Bentley, 770-789), by the sacrifices political openness entails: "I didn’t know how we could be friends with somebody one day and then enemies the next. I didn’t know why a man like Robeson would give up his shining career for something like politics" (62). But he is not yet openly critical. Like Etta and their fellow parishioners, he is part of a politically naïve and easily misled black community; and his skepticism towards Agent Craxton’s lecture on the dangers of Communism mostly stems from his lack of interest in the matter.

20Rawlins’s disinterest for politics is further illustrated when he hears of W.E.B. DuBois for the first time. Easy’s ignorance (he has heard of Marcus Garvey but not of DuBois although he attends night school at City College [214]) once again highlights the effects of anti-Communism. This lack of knowledge is not, however, very surprising. Just as with Robeson, Mosley sends the reader back into the inquisitorial atmosphere of the time. From the end of the forties on, DuBois was subjected to numerous attacks for his stand in favor of the American Communist Party. He was even excluded from the NAACP among whose founding members he had been at the beginning of the century. Easy’s unawareness of DuBois’s paramount role as a defender of black rights reads as one more evidence of anti-Communism, as well as of the will to erase black history and resilience:

“DuBois. He’s a famous Negro, Easy. Almost a hundred years old. He’s always been writin’’bout gettin’t’Africa. You prob’ly ain’t never heard of him’cause he’s a com’unist. They don’t teach ya’bout com’unists.”
“So how do you know, if they don’t teach it?”
“Li’ary got its do’ open, man. Ain’t nobody tellin’ you not to go.” (216).

21Although Easy has heard of Garvey, the latter’s image once again brings the characters’ political apathy out. To Easy, Garvey is essentially the proponent of the Return to Africa movement. Easy finds this idea mildly appealing (for others) because it means the possible emergence of a society run by and entirely composed of blacks. This dream of one’s own place, of fairness and equality does not leave Rawlins insensible. During a meeting organized by a movement called “African Migration Blue”, Sonja Achebe, the orator, speaks eloquently about the return to Africa. Rawlins listens closely with admiration, “The speaker was talking about home, Africa. A place where everybody looked like the people in that room. A place where kings and presidents were black. I was moved to hear her” (217). Nevertheless, the shadow of violence and police repression spoil the session. Easy has reasons to believe the movement may be involved in the murders he is suspected of and, after Achebe has admitted to being under FBI surveillance, Easy’s insistent questions bring a bodyguard who punches him hard.

  • 5 Again, like the witch hunt, this brings up the question of friendship and loyalty in a dog-eats-dog (...)

22Where do the characters stand with respect to the witch hunt? Such is the last question we will bring up through the character of Jackson Blue. Jackson is a small-time thief and informer for the local African-American underworld. Surprisingly, Jackson is a militant who demonstrates an unbelievable erudition in a number of domains, which attracts Rawlins’s admiration in spite of his awareness of Jackson’s big fault: his being ready to betray anyone for a modest sum.5 Thus, the character who stands out as a militant intellectual is equally an informer. It is from him that Rawlins tries to gather his information and to better understand the anti-Communist atmosphere into which he has been submersed, in spite of himself. Jackson Blue then reveals the existence of the blacklists and their victims who, for the most part, are white actors, writers or scientists. He is sure that neither his name nor that of Rawlins will ever appear on a blacklist, not for political reasons, but for a question of skin color:

“Yo’ name ain’t on that list, Easy. My name ain’t neither. You know why?” I shook my head.
“They don’t need yo’ name to know you black, Easy. All they gotta do is look at you an’they know that.”
“So what Jackson?” I didn’t understand and I was so drunk and high that it made me almost in a rage.
“One day they gonna th’ow that list out, man. They gonna need some movie star or some new bomb an’they gonna th’ow that list away. Mosta these guys gonna have work again,” he said, then he winked at me. “But you still gonna be a black niggah, Easy. An’ niggah ain’t got no union he could count on, an’ niggah ain’t got no politician gonna work fo’ him. All he got is a do’ step t’ shit in and a black hand t’wipe his black ass.” (230)

23To believe sarcastic JacksonBlue, neither Communism nor anti-Communism will change anything to African-American life. Blacks must face up to their situation without any hope of the least support from the whites. In this, Jackson Blue echoes W. E. B. DuBois’s bitter statement, “In my own country for nearly a century I have been nothing but a nigger” (Walker, 77).

24Mosley’s story suggests the witch hunt is one more political pageant passing black people by. The politics of A Red Death are steeped in racial pessimism. Black militant movements such as the African Migration Blue (possibly “Communists” in the either/or logic of the cold war) have no real voice, at least not one Easy is ready to hear. In spite of his sympathy for their message, he insists he already has a home. Though it is “in enemy lands” (221), this is where the struggle is: a struggle for respected social standing. But, at heart, Easy is a protester, not a politically organized militant ready to add to the gathering momentum of the civil rights campaign.

25Optimism, if there is any in the novel, comes from beyond the grave: the true friendship Wenzler entertained for Easy. Indeed, as the novel closes, Easy becomes conscious of the terrible events which have unfolded and pays homage to the dedicated Jewish militant who became his sincere friend while he himself had only set his sights on his own selfish short term aims: avoiding prison for having cheated the IRS. Perhaps the book suggests that racism and anti-Semitism are the same curse which must be beaten back.


Works Cited

Bentley, Eric. 1971. Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938-1968. New York: Viking Press.

Carter, Dan T. 1969. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press.

Mosley, Walter. 1992. A Red Death. London: Serpent’s Tail.

Navasky, Victor. 1980. Naming Names. New York: Penguin Books.

Schrecker, Helen. 1998. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Trumbo, Dalton. 1970. Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962. Ed. Helen Manfull. New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc.

Walker, Clarence. 1991. Deromanticizing Black History. Knoxville: Tennessee University Press.


1 Unless otherwise specified, all page references are to the 1992 (London: Serpent Tail) edition of A Red Death.

2 See (among others) the very moderate Daddy Was a Number Runner (Louise Meriwether, 1970), or God Bless the Child (Kristin Hunter, 1964).

3 The historian Helen Schrecker states that most of the Jewish American members of the Communist party were second generation American Jews (Schrecker 150).

4 The unvoiced taunt, an evanescent Communist followed by the golfing president should not be missed: indeed, achieving racial fairness was not at the top of President Eisenhower’s domestic agenda.

5 Again, like the witch hunt, this brings up the question of friendship and loyalty in a dog-eats-dog world: Jackson’s was Frank Green’s probable informer in Devil in a Blue Dress.


Associate Professor of American studies at Université de Franche-Comté, in Besançon. He received his Ph. D. from Université de Paris VII, Denis Diderot. He has published a series of articles on the antiCommunist Witch Hunt and Hollywood labor organizations. He is currently at work on a book about the Conference of Studio Unions, 1941-1948

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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