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Hard-boiled black easy: genre conventions in A Red Death.

Few mystery aficionados would quarrel with Stephen F. Soitos's ranking of Walter Mosley as that genre's preeminent African American writer ("Black Detective" 1003). Mosley's reputation derives mainly from five L. A. novels that appeared between 1990 and 1996. (1) These popular works, all featuring colors in their titles, arguably established Easy Rawlins, an unlicensed Watts troubleshooter, as the most fascinating detective to debut in the nineties and made President Bill Clinton Mosley's number one fan. Emphatically Mosley has acknowledged his effort to construct a hero with biracial appeal, one who resembles traditional white detectives in "trying to live in a world where there is no law ... trying to impose some sense of justice in a world that has no sense of justice" (Coale 203). Furthermore, Mosley freely acknowledges his attempt to use not only Rawlins but a larger black community to give a "racial-political bent" to his mysteries (203). Thus, Mosley asserts, he uses "a wide range of black characters ... to reflect ... black life as if it were human life in America, [to take] the point of view that black people are insiders rather than standing on the outside looking in" (McCullough 67). By situating his hero in a "labyrinthine and loyalty bound black community" (Coale 179), Mosley follows earlier black mystery writers. Moreover, according to Stephen Soitos, he uses standard detective conventions to critique mainstream attitudes towards race, class, and blacks (Blues 52). In his Rawlins series in particular, Mosley revives an African American literary strategy of adapting popular cultural forms to critique racial hypocrisy.

Conspicuous in his artistic development and typical of his retrospective approach, Mosley's second Rawlins novel, A Red Death (1991), views the Red witch hunt of the early 1950s from the perspective of a black man who is "one-third street-wise survivor, one-third unwitting private investigator, and one-third Robin Hood" (Mitgang C16). (2) In A Red Death Mosley nuances conventions of the hard-boiled private eye genre to the milieu of an urban black protagonist and adheres to the genre's tradition of inner-directed honor-bound heroism.

Of the conventions Mosley tailored to Easy Rawlins, perhaps none is more prevalent in the genre than the hero's arsenal of ruses, a reflection of the self-reliant ingenuity of lone agents of natural justice in corrupt cities. John Cawelti and George Grella, whose commentaries constitute a virtual poetics of the genre, provide background for other conventions tapped by Mosley in A Red Death. For example, the hero's willingness to break laws for a just cause manifests what Cawelti identifies as the detective/hero's defining "his own concept of morality and justice, frequently in conflict with the social authority of the police" (143). Another genre staple, the hero's rapport with oppressed or otherwise marginalized figures, grows out of his replacing "the subtleties of the deductive method with a sure knowledge of his world and a keen moral sense" (Grella 414). Also, resourcefulness in holding authorities at bay stems from the hero's conventional self-control and physical toughness: Unlike the hero of the classic whodunit, he usually has to withstand intimidation (Cawelti 142). Not infrequently his physical sturdiness is tested, sometimes by pre-Miranda police officers, who are, as Grella notes, "incompetent, brutal, or corrupt" (414). And almost invariably he demonstrates a capacity for administering poetic justice, an aspect of his meting out what Cawelti calls "the just punishment that the law is too mechanical, unwieldy, or corrupt to achieve" (143).

To appreciate how rapidly Mosley mastered--and surpassed--his chosen genre, we have only to compare his ensemble use of the foregoing conventions in A Red Death to their respective individual deployment in later novels by genre maestros John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. While honoring the genre, Mosley enriched it: He made its conventions vibrate with the realities of black urban life.

To take one conventional example, the Travis McGee adventures, by John D. MacDonald, parallel Mosley's L. A. series in that they, too, feature a color in each title and are narrated by an unlicensed troubleshooter who maintains an innocuous cover occupation. In the thirteenth installment of the saga, "salvage expert" McGee leaves his houseboat to even the score for a wronged party who has no legal recourse. A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971) mines the familiar hard-boiled convention of ingenuity by the hero. McGee's calculatedly misleading persona of a Florida boat bum preludes his variety of ruses throughout the rest of the novel. By telephone, McGee twice impersonates others while tracking down a missing woman. Then, to spy on the enterprise of the suspiciously behaving husband, he poses as the friend of a prospective condo buyer. By claiming to have a (cleverly printed but bogus) check, he gains the confidence of the missing woman's neighbor, who gives him a valuable lead. Suspecting the worst, McGee flies to Grenada in the guise of a shady financial hustler. There he intimidates a woman impersonating the missing Mary into betraying her confederate-cousin, the sociopathic murderer. In his menacing cover identity, McGee coerces her cooperation with a bogus cautionary tale about once having had to murder a duplicitous blonde. After Mary's murderer brutally kills his cousin/accomplice and nearly liquidates McGee, Travis fakes his death at sea and covertly returns to Florida. To trace the financial moves that appropriated Mary's funds, McGee disguises himself as a tourist before accompanying his economist sidekick to a bank. The disguise serves him while extorting information from a bank officer, then he uses it to deceive his nemesis if he puts in a sudden appearance. Later, when McGee's ruse to expose the villain backfires and he is forced to bind himself with baling wire, MacDonald's resourceful hero leaves enough slack to bend and break the wire. The deception enables him to surprise and dispatch his captor.

McGee's laid-back persona and "salvage expert" cover identity screen his counter-swindles and buffer him from revenge-minded adversaries. In contrast, Rawlins's putative janitorial status protects him from danger within his Watts/South Central community: Concealing his real estate holdings is prudent in an environment where "a poor man will kill you over a dime" (108). Rawlins's ruses corroborate his ambiguous status within a racist culture. Twice, sympathy with the endangered prompts him to find them clandestine quarters. Also, survival skills honed against that biased culture enable him to play the cowed subordinate. Challenged to produce nonexistent records, for example, he strings along an IRS tormentor with "plain folks" prevarication: "Well ... that might take a few days. You know I got some shoe boxes in the closet, and then again, some of it might be in the garage if it goes that far back" (33). And to enlist the aid of an FBI man who can fend off the IRS, Easy slips into the persona of a "good" (respectful) black: "Well, you know I'm always ready to be a good citizen.... That's why I'm here this time of night" (45). Later, Rawlins gains the confidence of the murderer's wife by appearing at her doorstep in an improvised delivery man's uniform and speaks "in the crisp tone I used to address officers in WW II" (233).

Mosley's Rawlins employs more mundane trickery than MacDonald's McGee, who gathers clues by telephone impersonations or by posing as a check-bearing officer of an impressive sounding company. Rawlins obtains a fugitive's new address by visiting his girlfriend, pretending to need work clothes mended, and searching her quarters while she sleeps post-coitally. To gain access to the room of a suspect, he invents an excuse for the man's sudden departure and pays for a month's rent. When necessary, Easy uses less subtle methods: Prying open an apartment lock, he finds a suspiciously expensive wardrobe and incriminating financial notes. Finally, while closing in on the villain, faux deliveryman Rawlins gives the IRS man's wife a plainly wrapped parcel of stolen government secrets that will frame Agent Lawrence. Diverting Mrs. Lawrence to an inner room to get money for the "delivery charge," he gains entrance to plant still more frame-up material.

Rawlins's repertoire of trickery accords with the African American tradition of quick-witted practicality. In one African myth, a hare dupes larger and more powerful animals into clearing his field for farming. Taking a long rope, he challenges a hippo and an elephant to a tug-of-war. With each beast believing that the hare is at the other end, he tugs in both directions. After an all-day struggle the behemoths uproot bushes, soften the earth, and clear the land sufficiently for the hare's agricultural efforts (January 20-21). Similarly, Rawlins plays the FBI against the IRS.

Rawlins exemplifies what Louis D. Rubin, Jr. calls the trickster rabbit's "capacity to survive and flourish in a world in which society can be and often is predatory" (Cartwright qtd. 125). Thus, Mosley and his protagonist reflect the coping skills of contemporary African Americans. In a multiyear study of U. S. blacks and whites, David K. Shipler reports instances of blacks' survival by mediating the level of intelligence they project to whites. A black physicist recalled his mother's dodging a speeding ticket in Texas by pretending to be a "dumb black" woman (296). When three friends got a flat tire in Georgia, they did not immediately change it. When questioned by a patronizing trooper, the driver, actually an articulate college man, professed in an Amos 'n' Andy accent not to know how to repair the flat. The trooper called them names but changed the tire himself while the young men "stood around trying to look dumb" (297). Similarly, two mail sorters tricked their white supervisor into doing a considerable portion of their sorting by repeatedly pretending that something was wrong with their machine (297-98).

When it comes to law-breaking for a just cause, Rawlins has an affinity to the series hero of Robert B. Parker's seventh Spenser adventure, Early Autumn (1981). Spenser is guided by the situational ethics of many fictional sleuths; Rawlins's escapades arguably manifest the practicality and expedience that oppressed people learn the hard way. In A Red Death, he holds his own in opting for natural as opposed to legal statutory justice. Despite his commendable wartime combat record, Easy must remain on guard against racism. He conducts himself as Spenser might, were Spenser black. Parker's creation of a memorable black sidekick for Spenser in Hawk, an occasional leg breaker and hit man, shows insight into the predicament of the urban black underclass. In a radio interview, Parker further demonstrated his awareness: "I intend Hawk to be practical in a way that most people who have been oppressed are practical.... Blacks are more practical than whites in terms of matters of expedience as opposed to matters of scruple ... because they've learned what's important the hard way ("Fresh Air").

Neither Spenser nor Rawlins is deterred by the illegality of breaking and entering. For example, Spenser uses a shim to get into the apartment of a custody-violating father and later burgles the father's files and, in a separate incident, the mother's financial records. These break-ins produce blackmail leverage to free an adolescent from abusive parents. No slouch himself at illegal entry to secure clues, Rawlins breaks into a junkyard and discovers secreted papers used to set up two of his acquaintances. Also, prying open the lock of another acquaintance's house produces incriminating financial notes.

More seriously, Spenser and Rawlins employ intimidation and even become unintended accessories to homicide. Spenser manhandles a small-time crook to connect a fire insurance broker to an underworld boss. After his murderous sidekick Mouse kidnaps Easy's treacherous real estate manager, Rawlins participates in an unfriendly interrogation. A gallant Spenser roughs up the mobster who terrifies his significant other, then Hawk kills him, explaining that, alive, the humiliated mob boss would be even more dangerous. Similarly, in his Griffith Park attempted extortion of a triple murderer whom he already has framed, Easy is almost killed. As luck would have it, Mouse is nearby to blow away the renegade IRS murderer and shakedown artist.

Their adept uses of extralegal tactics place Spenser and Rawlins squarely in the hard-boiled tradition. Typically, argues LeRoy Panek, hard-boiled heroes react against "absolutes, authority, and power" and are attuned to "the conflict between statute law and natural law" (219). Richard Schnickel explains the resultant vigilantism as a consequence of law enforcement organizations' being "too dumb, [too] numb, or [too] crooked" (273), to which Easy and other blacks, real and constructed, would add, "too racist."

The convention of extralegality for a just cause antedates the advent of hard-boiled heroes. End-runs around the law were familiar detective genre elements even before such characters were called "detectives." In "The Murders of the Rue Morgue" (1841) Poe's C. Auguste Dupin excuses from legal responsibility a material witness who did not come forward when an innocent man was accused of the grotesque killings actually committed by the witness's pet orangutan. Furthermore, in "The Purloined Letter" Dupin steals a stolen letter after staging a peace-disturbing distraction outside, as Sherlock Holmes does in "A Scandal in Bohemia."

Indeed, Holmes commentator Erik Routley observes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's sleuth disregards the letter of the law in 11 of his 60 cases, shielding perpetrators of theft, abduction, and even homicide (Appendix I). numerous other applications of the convention of extralegality occur in mysteries by Agatha Christie (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), Dashiell Hammett (Red Harvest), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), and even William Faulkner, whose detective tale "Smoke" was published in Harper's in 1949. (3) Chester Himes, precursor to Mosley as an African American crime novelist, also nodded to the convention in his Harlem police procedurals--notably The Real Cool Killers and All Shot Up (Willett 63).

And who's to say that a real life jury confronted with troubling legalities should not or does not emulate these fictional detectives. For the first O. J. Simpson verdict, black jurors apparently applied an updated (extreme) legal remedy recommended to them by a former Washington, DC, prosecutor turned law professor. In 1995 Paul Butler advocated the exercise of "racially based" jury nullification to redress imbalance in the judicial system and to return nonviolent lawbreakers to their community. Notably, Butler did not endorse nullification in cases involving murder, rape, and assault (715). He did cite white and black precedents, however. As early as 1670 a New York appeals court would not uphold the punishment of a jury that had acquitted two Quakers charged with assembling and unlawfully disturbing the peace. In a colonial proceeding generally acknowledged to have established freedom of the press, John Peter Zenger was found not guilty of seditious libel after publishing criticism of British rule in New York. After 1776, some northern juries nullified the guilt of abolitionists who aided slaves, thereby neutralizing laws that held the latter to be stolen property (701-03). Given the historically racist behavior of the Los Angeles Police Department, which I discuss in greater detail below, the action of the first O. J. Simpson jury must be examined within the context of the institutionalized racism surrounding the police beating of Rodney King and the suburban white jury nullification that acquitted officers involved in the case.

The hard-boiled hero's rapport with oppressed and marginalized people has a well-articulated rationale. In a celebrated essay on the poetics of the mystery story, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler argues that the detective should have "a range of awareness that startles you ... it belongs to him ... because it belongs to the world he lives in" (59). Chandler vividly illustrated this claim in his third novel, The High Window, and fifty years later Walter Mosley honored it in A Red Death. Phillip Marlowe, Chandler's hero in The High Window, interacts sympathetically with a diverse array of people; he reacts alertly to people marginalized by class, age, occupation, and/or gender. The private eye smoothly establishes rapport with a hygienically challenged aging but observant elevator man and a similarly discerning ex-jockey turned chauffeur. At an exclusive club Marlowe dissolves the prickliness of an outdoor security man and a berated barman. Also, his competence and unprejudiced demeanor inspire trust in a bumbling private eye wannabe who later sends Marlowe a clue. The glitzy layabout Lois Magic is anything but enchanting, but Marlowe saves her from a murder frame-up by her cuckolded husband. On a different social level, awareness of the overbearing nature of the snobbish Leslie Murdock's mother likely induces the detective to accept Leslie's account of having accidentally killed his mother's blackmailer. Also, despite her off-putting icily neurotic behavior, Marlowe chivalrously rescues a secretary from the psychological abuse of her murderess employer. These relationships, very similar to those involving Easy Rawlins, exemplify what Leroy Lad Panek identifies as the hardboiled protagonist's "intuitive reading of individuals and ... growing under standing of the plight of his fellows" (129).

Given the social milieu of A Red Death, Rawlins calls on no well-off Pasadena widows, as Marlowe does. Nonetheless, Easy's broad sympathy connects him with Chicano, black, young, and Jewish acquaintances across his largely Watts/South Central environs. After saving one black fugitive from both the wrath of a cuckolded husband and a joint aircraft company/FBI frame-up, Rawlins arranges to hide him, his common-law wife, and their infant. And to the dismay of his real estate manager, he proposes forgiving the rent of an ailing tenant. During a placid interlude, Mosley depicts Easy's friendship with a Chicano and his black spouse. In their multiethnic home he reconnects with his godson, a traumatized abuse victim whom he has rescued in a previous case. Easy is also honorary uncle to the son of stone killer Mouse Raymond, who lacks respectable parenting skills and values Easy's tips on fatherhood.

Despite the white bigotry he endures, Rawlins does not succumb to counterprejudice. He is moved by the pathetic state of the apparently abused wife and the bed-ridden son of his IRS nemesis. And out of respect for a Jewish World War II resistance fighter and current labor activist, Easy procrastinates and ultimately avoids having to set him up for the FBI. And when he is slain, Rawlins comforts and arranges clandestine living quarters for Chaim's daughter.

In short, Mosley carefully inscribes in A Red Death a deep knowledge of white bigotry and racist victimization of blacks from the 1950s to the 1990s. The 1991 depiction of racism and other systemic social ills in A Red Death accentuates the limited range of awareness in white-authored detective novels like Chandler's 1942 The High Window, which features few African Americans. Still, the Marlowe of The High Window improves on the hero's earlier racist condescension and derogatory discourse.

Perhaps Chandler represents the many Americans who would likely have accepted General Mark Clark's publicly expressed opinion that the worst troops he commanded in World War II were an all-black unit (Collier-Thomas and Franklin 46). Blacks' heroic combat achievements were severely underreported, so generally speaking, whites could not heed the extraordinary service of blacks, segregated military units notwithstanding. Most whites assumed black servicemen most effective in noncombatant functions, for even individual blacks assigned to white combat units were restricted to noncombatant roles. (4) Nevertheless, by war's end decorated noncombatants would include Navy Cross and Silver Star recipients in the Navy, and among segregated combat units the illustrious Tuskegee airmen earned 88 Distinguished Flying Crosses while the 332nd Fighter Group and the 99th Pursuit Squadron together received a presidential citation and 800 medals (Adams, January 17).

Within this historical context, Mosley registers the irony of a black combat veteran's experiences with Jim Crow back home in Los Angeles. A volunteer in General Patton's death camp liberation thrust as well as the Battle of the Bulge, Easy is denied admission to the satirically named Adolph's Lounge until an FBI agent gets him across the color line. George M. Frederickson has pointed out that the term racism "first came into common usage in the 1930s when a new word was required to describe the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews" (5). At Adolph's Lounge, Easy learns that racism is still alive and well in the 1940s.

What would a hard-boiled yarn be without a tough protagonist being leaned on, even beaten, by the powers that be? Easy Rawlins and Sam Spade represent contrasting but sociologically credible modes of deflecting, diverting, or otherwise frustrating coercion by the authorities. This testing of the hero--and his thematically necessary response--suggests that suffering and injustice in hard-boiled fiction often results from the abuse of power.

Whereas A Red Death features a working poor black man's active resistance to official coercion, the resistance to authority in Dashiell Hammett's third novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930), differs only in that the hero's socioeconomic and professional standing exceeds Easy's. A white, licensed investigator with a wily lawyer on retainer, Sam Spade reacts aggressively to meddlesome cops and officialdom. He twice maintains the upper hand when detectives drop in to his apartment uninvited to grill him about his partner's murder. In a ploy not available to Rawlins, he preludes his sarcastic ripostes by having white policemen join him for a drink. In another face-off he protects two guests and himself from arrest by extemporizing an outlandish explanation of his guests' mutually hostile behavior. Also unlike Rawlins, Spade can combine verbal sparring with physical passivity; he goads the abrasive Lieutenant Dundy into striking him but retains enough self-control not to retaliate and provide a pretext for arrest. Later, when a corner-cutting, conviction-hunting D. A. threatens to have his license revoked, Spade calls his bluff and asserts the rights of his profession and his clients.

As if Rawlins's minority status does not make his dealings with the authorities difficult enough, his furtive real estate acquisitions and resultant tax delinquency make him vulnerable to the designs of an overbearing IRS agent and a Red-hunting FBI man. Mosley clarifies that, at the mercy of pre-Miranda police interrogators, Rawlins cannot employ Sam Spade's flippancy. Rather, like oppressed people everywhere, he draws integrity from inner resources. When the third-degree escalates to torture, he avoids the slippery slope of replying, a course that would subject him to contrived self-incrimination. He holds out by imagining that his tormentors are sharks closing in on his leaking raft. As the pain intensifies, he maintains self-control by listening to the voice in his head screaming, "Don't give in, Easy" (157). With self-control, patience, and finesse, Easy resists a rogue IRS agent's psychological coercion. He initially denies being a tax-evader, then buys time by feigning cooperation, and eventually plays his antagonist against a self-serving FBI man. Sizing up a targeted communist as benign, Rawlins delays betraying him to U. S. officials. Only when a murder removes Easy's leverage with the FBI, does he resort to aggressive self-defense, getting the IRS off his case by framing his tormentor and luring him into what turns out to be a deadly showdown.

Mosley's perspective on Los Angeles policemen is dead on. In fact, A Red Death reconstructs Mosley's own 1950s boyhood abusive encounters with L. A. police. In "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man" Henry L. Gates, Jr. quotes Mosley bitterly recollecting: "When I was a kid in Los Angeles, they used to stop me all the time, beat on me, follow me around, tell me I was stealing things" (Butler qtd. 691). Though compounded by blackness, such maltreatment was not always race-based, of course. Ray Bradbury recalls a stroll he took in 1950s Mid-Wilshire. The white friends were walking and conversing when a police car stopped ahead of them and an officer emerged and asked them what they were doing. Bradbury replied that they were "breathing the air, talking, conversing, walking." "Walking, eh? Just walking? Well, don't do it again!" ("Burning Bright" 13-14). In 1943 when Mexican youths were stripped and beaten by mobs of white Angelenos, ostensibly on suspicion of having assaulted soldiers and sailors, local police did not intervene. Mexicans were decried as "genetically prone to crime and vice," and then Chief of Police Horall agreed (205). No wonder Mosley deliberately situated Easy Rawlins's experience of police brutality in A Red Death in the same year that an experimental program found so many L. A. recruits psychologically unfit for police duty that psychiatric examinations were again made "an integral part of the induction process" (229). Ironically, in 1950 new Chief of Police William H. Parker described Los Angeles as "The White Spot of America" (227).

In a 1992 book co-authored by a former L. A. police detective, Mike Rothmiller claimed that the department's Organized Crime Intelligence Division kept records of, among other activities, the harassment of minorities (Melanson 103-4). The Christopher Commission's inquiry into police behavior, prompted by the infamous beating of Rodney King, found that only 44 "readily identifiable" officers had drawn exceedingly high rates of citizen complaints, and none received any meaningful discipline (Harris 198). The Commission also unearthed an ugly record of racism in written police computer communications. In one, police officers bragged about being ready to shoot. Wrote one, "A full moon and a full gun makes for a night of fun." Another officer suggested, "Everybody you kill in the line of duty becomes a slave in the afterlife." Still another was pleased to be assigned to the housing projects to earn his salary by "pissing off the natives" and fantasizing drives down Slauson with a flame thrower to "have a barbeque" (Shipler 391).

Cousin to these real-life cops, a rogue IRS agent stands behind all the mischief in A Red Death. From 1956 to 1968 the real IRS colluded with the FBI in perpetrating widespread criminal mischief. Between those years the FBI's infamous Counterintelligence Program (or COINELPRO) enlisted the IRS in investigating American Communist Party members--folks like one friend of Easy's in A Red Death, an FBI target who is actually a harmless party member. During the 12 and a half years that the Bureau had "unlimited informal access to IRS data," the IRS never asked why the Bureau wanted certain returns (Davis 36). A 1961 Bureau memorandum now discloses that Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover, unsupported by logic or proof, promulgated a connection between militant black leaders and white Communists (Rowan 281).

Hoover leveled 25 separate allegations of immorality against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (Rowan 261, 300). A COINTELPRO memo dated a month before King's assassination reveals how vehemently the organization equated African Americans with internal subversion. One of the goals in the memo was "to prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement" (Davis 44). Thus, the FBI eavesdropped on King as well as Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad and prizefighter Muhammad All (Rowan 293). And not to be overlooked is the Justice Department's long-running campaign of dirty tricks that failed to bribe, and thereby indict, Richard Arrington, the outspoken Mayor of Birmingham who condemned police brutality. Freedom of Information Act documents have since revealed that Arrington was one of six Alabama blacks "targeted for phony prosecution by the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush" (Shipley 432).

Perhaps most satisfying about the various mystery authors I have examined here is their artful use of poetic justice. The hard-boiled just deserts conclusion that Walter Mosley formulated for A Red Death places him with leading novelists John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett at the forefront of a venerable fiction tradition. To consider their protagonists in turn, MacDonald's Travis McGee reverses his adversary's attempt to bury him in asphalt, a grim method of murder that the killer had used on others. Parker's Spenser salvages a promising future for a neglected boy by compelling his dysfunctional parents to pay for their son's new start at a boarding school. Similarly, Chandler's Philip Marlowe extracts blackmail payment from the villainous Murdocks and diverts it to finance the first step in the psychological recovery of the secretary they intimated and abused. Finally, Hammett denounces the allure of murderous femmes fatale when Sam Spade honors his personal and professional code by turning a blonde over to the proper authorities. And in a triumphant tour de force Mosley's Easy frames, blackmails, and entraps the racist IRS man who extorts and victimizes L. A. blacks.

Perhaps the convention of poetic justice is so common in hard-boiled mysteries because it counterbalances the thumb-on-the-scales justice of perverted statutory law. If so, then Walter Mosley's novels are masterful: In them, generic conventions resonate with the realities of black urban life, past and present. His Rawlins, lucky and wily, could easily lead dic buds McGee, Spenser, Marlowe, and Spade in the old blues refrain that forms the epigraph to A Red Death: "If it weren't for poetic justice we'd have no justice at all."


(1.) Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), A Red Dress (1991), White Butterfly (1992), Black Betty (1994), and A Little Yellow Dog (1996). Gone Fishin', a pre-L. A. Rawlins novel, appeared in 1997. In 2002 Mosley resumed the color-coded L. A. series with Bad Boy Brawly Brown.

(2.) Marilyn C. Wesley's "Power and Knowledge in Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress," an incisive analysis of race and ethnicity in Mosley's first hard-boiled detective novel, appeared in African American Review 35 (2001): 103-116.

(3.) A consideration of the extralegal acts of fictional sleuths along with a review of the jury nullification trend in 1990s American courts can be found in W. Russel Gray's "Supralegal Justice: Are Real Juries Acting like Fictional Detectives?"

(4.) These are prime examples of African Americans being, in a phrase used by Walter Mosley in 1993, "edited out" of historical events. In that interview he declared that one of his aims was to edit blacks back into such events (qtd. Wesley 114n7). Hence in A Red Death Easy recalls his voluntary combat duty with General Patton's forces at a time when blacks in nonsegregated units were officially restricted to noncombatant status.

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Routley, Erik. The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story. London: Gollancz, 1972.

Rowan, Carl T. Breaking Barriers: A Memoir. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.

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--. The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1996.

Wesley, Marilyn C. "Power and Knowledge in Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress." African American Review 35.1: 103-16.

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W. Russel Gray, retired English Professor, holds degrees from Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Temple and taught for 41 years. His articles have dealt with detective fiction and films, science fiction, Victorian prize-fighting, the Constitution, John Brown, George Orwell, and Harold Pinter's screenplays.
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Author:Gray, W. Russel
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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