A Red Death by Walter Mosley

Book Details

Originally published in 1991
Easy Rawlins #2
Preceded by Devil in a Blue Dress
Followed by White Butterfly

The Blurb

It’s 1953 in Red-baiting, blacklisting Los Angeles—a moral tar pit ready to swallow Easy Rawlins. Easy is out of the hurting business and into the housing (and favor) business when a racist IRS agent nails him for tax evasion.

Special Agent Darryl T. Craxton, FBI, offers to bail him out if he agrees to infiltrate the First American Baptist Church and spy on alleged communist organizer Chaim Wenzler. That’s when the murders begin….

The Verdict

Though the mystery plot feels a little unfocused, the setting and themes are handled well. Do make sure you read Devil in a Blue Dress first though!

“I got something for you to do for your country. You like fighting for your country, don’t you, Ezekiel?”

My Thoughts

It has been a number of years since I posted about Walter Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins novel, Devil in a Blue Dress. That post was designed to be a comparison between the book and Carl Franklin’s movie and, looking back on it, I feel I ought to have given the novel more focus in its own right. Perhaps I will get around to doing that in time but for now I prefer to push forwards and start to read some of the sequels which have been on my TBR pile for years!

First, a word of warning: the events of A Red Death directly and frequently refer to the ending of the previous novel. Enough of the backstory is given to follow what is going on but I would suggest that were you to skip over the first book you would likely not get as much out of it. Not only would you spoil some developments at the end of the last book, you would also miss out on the character development between the novels both of Easy and also of some of the other recurring figures in his life. That would diminish the experience in my opinion.

In the five years that have passed since the end of Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy has become a landlord and secretly invested in three properties using some undeclared income. He has gone to lengths to disguise his ownership of those buildings, hiring a man named Mofass to act as a property manager on his behalf in exchange for a cut of the rent. He keeps an eye on the buildings himself and the residents think of him as a handyman. The arrangement seems to be working pretty well for him until he is suddenly approached by an IRS agent who believes he has tracked down ownership of the properties to Rawlins and wants to audit his financial records.

Easy is clearly in some pretty big trouble. Fortunately he is thrown a lifeline when he is approached by an FBI agent who promises he can make these legal troubles go away and get him on a payment plan for those back taxes. First though Easy would need to do a job for him and for his country. He is asked to worm his way into the confidences of Chaim Wenzler, a community organizer at a local baptist church to try and find proof that he might be a communist spy. Easy agrees, though he is wary of the agent, but his problems soon multiply as he finds himself discovering several bodies…

One of the things that interests me most about the Easy Rawlins books is Mosley’s really thoughtful exploration of the changes taking place in post-war America and how race affected people’s experiences of those changes. This story, set at the height of the second Red Scare, deals with the growing paranoia about the idea that Communist spys and sympathizers could destroy America. The portrayal of that paranoid attitude is done very well but equally effective is Mosley’s portrayal of how those issues did not necessarily extend throughout all of American society. This is both because of limited media access (a character’s first interaction with a television here is quite memorable) but also that it is hard for some to get animated about protecting the American dream when they are prevented from achieving it.

Another aspect of the setup here that I think it particularly effective is the use of the threat of the IRS audit. Informal, undeclared sources of income are a frequent feature of the hardboiled story and I cannot remember the sudden influx of capital ever being commented on in this sort of story before. This not only serves as an effective source of motivation for Easy to get involved in the case, it is also used to comment on the way authority is used.

As in the first novel, the character of Easy is thoughtfully developed here. Easy soon finds himself feeling increasingly conflicted about his role in this case. He finds unexpected common ground with his target, Chaim, and guilt about his duplicity in getting close with him and his family. I enjoyed these characters’ exchanges a lot and felt that the development of this relationship was rich and nuanced, providing a strong center for the novel.

Easy is not a perfect man – some will take issue with his simultaneous proclamations of love for a woman while he sleeps around with several other characters – but he is always an interesting one. Similarly I think that some of the backstory we get around his life before he enlisted in the US army is interesting and futher fleshed out the character.

There are several characters who return from the first novel and I feel that each receives similarly rich development. Mouse’s struggle to understand how to be a father when he had such a toxic relationship with his own is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying while I think Etta Mae feels more richly rendered than in her previous appearance. The overlap between those relationships is intriguing and handled thoughtfully – especially as Easy tries to navigate an awkward situation with Mouse.

A Red Death is not only a historical novel and a piece of character study though, it is a hard-boiled mystery story. Unfortunately the genre elements of the book were, in my opinion, its least compelling features. My issue with it as a mystery is not that it lacks incident but rather than the various incidents we experience feel quite disconnected for much of the novel and so it is hard to focus on a central question or plot problem. Mosley does, of course, bring everything together at the end but I felt that process of consolidation and resolution was a little rushed, reducing its impact.

While I think that the crime plot is less satisfying than that of its predecessor, I appreciated the way Mosley developed his themes and characters. I enjoyed my time with this one overall and look forward to learning what happens next to Easy in White Butterfly.

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

I had been thinking a little about some of the features I would like to incorporate into this blog alongside the reviews of new and old books when it occurred to me that it might be interesting to take a look at a novel and an adaptation of that work in some format. The idea would be to comment on whether it captures the tone and spirit of the original work, some of the changes that were made and whether I felt it does the original work justice.

The novel and film I have selected to start with is Devil in a Blue Dress which I read for the first time over a decade ago. At that time I had never read a hard-boiled detective novel before and while I enjoyed aspects of the novel, I struggled to engage with the writing style and the novel’s grim outlook on the world.

Had it not been for an Audible special offer I might never have given the book a second thought but when the chance came to snap up an audio recording read by Michael Boatman for under a dollar I snapped it up on an impulse. Boatman brought Mosley’s hard-boiled prose and the character of Easy Rawlins and the characters he interacts with to life for me.

If you have never read the book or seen the movie, here is a potted summary:

It is 1948 and we are in Los Angeles. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is out of work and in desperate need of some money to help him pay his mortgage when into the bar walks DeWitt Albright, a white man who is offering to pay him to help locate a missing girl, Daphne Monet who he believes may be frequenting an African-American bar. That is, of course, just the start of an adventure that sees Easy getting beaten up, accused of murder and manipulated by just about everyone.

The Novel

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Devil in a Blue Dress
Walter Mosley
Originally Published 1990
Easy Rawlins #1
Followed by A Red Death

The first thing to say about Walter Mosley’s novel is that it is an incredibly significant and influential work within the hard-boiled mystery genre. Mosley was not the first successful African-American mystery novelist but he remains one of the most widely read and enjoyed. Easy Rawlins sees Los Angeles from a different perspective than other hard-boiled characters do and encounters different barriers in his investigations.

Simply being historically significant does not mean that the experience of reading it will necessarily be rewarding or enjoyable. After all, the first time I read the novel I was just as aware of its reputation but perhaps focused my attention on the plot without appreciating the skillful way Mosley builds a sense of time and place. What I noticed in my second reading that I had missed the first time through were the discussions of perception of a person’s race, of the lack of integration within society in that time and the way that Easy prizes his sense of agency above security at several points within the novel.

His story is compelling, especially in those sequences that feature the character of Mouse who is something of a wild card within Easy’s life and perhaps the ultimate example of the destructive friend who is really bad news. We learn about their relationship in flashbacks throughout the novel, building our anticipation for the moment when Mouse will inevitably enter the story.

While I found the narrative engaging, I did feel that the female characters in the story were somewhat one-note being defined primarily by their sexual presences. I recognize that this is hardly unusual for a hard-boiled work but it does make those characters seem a little flat and two-dimensional which is a shame when the characters of Easy and Mouse are so well drawn.

I am curious to see where the series leads and plan to listen to the next story at some point soon.

The Adaptation

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Carl Franklin’s movie adaptation stars Denzel Washington in the role of Easy. By the time this film was made he was one of the highest profile actors around, having found critical and commercial success with Glory, Malcolm X and Philadelphia. Looking at the cast list, he was really the only established star in the mix which may help explain why the film was not a box office hit in spite of some strong reviews from critics.

Franklin keeps the initial set-up of the story the same but makes some changes to some character motivations and adds a new subplot to help condense and simplify the narrative. Characters such as Frank become less of a presence in the movie than they do in the book while Terrell’s significance is increased.

There are two changes to the story that I found to be particularly significant however. The first is that Daphne’s relationship with Easy is not consummated as it is in considerable detail in the book. That choice, in my opinion, strengthened her character and made her feelings about a third character clearer.

The second change really arises from the first and is hard to write about without spoiling both the book and the film. What I can say is that while many aspects of the ending remain in place in the film, the character motivations in those final scenes are notably different and give the ending a very different tone. I think that this different ending largely remains in keeping with the themes of the novel but it does put a different spin on a key relationship.

Generally though I was impressed at how well the film bought the world of 1940s Los Angeles to life. Visually the film is not glossy or lush but it is competently directed and does a good job of setting the scene and evoking a sense of time and place.

I was also quite pleased with the way most of the parts were cast with most of the characters being fairly good matches for how I had imagined them when reading. The exceptions were Todd Carter and DeWitt Albright. In the case of Carter I had imagined someone a little younger and childish, though the actor cast matched the character as portrayed in the film. In the case of Albright however I had thought the novel had mentioned being from the Georgia and I imagined him to physically look like a lawyer rather than the enforcer interpretation we see from Tom Sizemore. While those changes may sound cosmetic, in the case of Albright I felt it diminished the character a little, simplifying him.

Where the film gets it absolutely right is in the casting of Don Cheadle as Mouse for which he won a number of awards. While I cannot say that Cheadle is how I had imagined the character physically, his interpretation makes a lot of sense and captures the character’s sense of bravado. When you consider just how much material from his story is cut, in particular the flashback descriptions of how he committed two murders and his discussion with Easy about guilt, it is remarkable just how complete his presentation of that character is. The film noticeably shifts a gear when he arrives in the narrative and he gets several of the most powerful moments in the picture.

As for Denzel Washington, he does a very solid job with the role of Easy, particularly given we are only treated to the character’s internal monologue as a bookend to the movie. Given how important his internal voice is to the character and to helping the reader understand what he is doing and his feelings about the people around him, it is impressive how much of those feelings Washington is able to convey through his physical performance.

Overall, I think the film has stood the test of time fairly well and works well as an adaptation of the novel. I was struck as I watched it though that the material would surely be even more suited to television where the story could be given more room to breathe.