Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins Mystery), by Walter Mosley
This is a book written in 1990, the first book published by Walter Mosley. It features a detective main character named Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins who Mosley would return to in several more books. The book was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington in the Rawlins role in 1995.
The book is set in 1948 and Rawlins is a WWII veteran who, during the war, was able to break out of the Army jobs reserved for blacks at the start of the war by volunteering to be part of the Normandy invasion. The war altered his perspective at deep levels. After the war he escaped his native Houston and settled in Watts to find work that paid well in the still-booming Los Angeles area. There he’s the proud owner of a small house.
After refusing to work overtime Rawlins is now out of work and while at a bar, after a recommendation by the bartender, he’s hired by a white detective to help look for a woman named Daphne Monet. She’s white and the detective says she likes hanging out in black bars and nightclubs, areas where the white detective wouldn’t be welcome.
Mosley started writing in his mid-thirties, a fan of the noir detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The book echoes that hard-boiled era of crime fiction. But as much as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe had challenges with the LAPD Rawlins has to face them as an individual who has no rights in the eyes of the law.
A key witness to Monet’s whereabouts ends up dead and Rawlins is a key suspect. The rest of the book is Rawlin’s search for Monet while trying to stay clear of the police, work out the mystery behind Monet’s leaving a very wealthy “patron” who wants her back, and trying to work with the white detective who has an agenda of his own.
It’s a highly polished work, on some lists (including Mystery Writers of America) as one of the top 100 mysteries of the last century. Rawlins has earned and demands respect from the white community he has to navigate and, from his perspective, he had to kill white people in the war and doing it again is not unthinkable. It gives him an interesting edge as a main character who sometimes has to argue just to enter a building in white neighborhoods. A lot of writers have tried to copy or honor Chandler but few have matched his complexity and intensity. Mosley has.