The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice
James M. Cain
Originally Published 1934

The Postman Always Rings Twice is an important and widely celebrated novel within the mystery and crime fiction genre. It is a fixture on many best novel lists including the CWA, MWA and Modern Library top hundred lists. It has been adapted a number of times, including the celebrated 1946 movie adaptation, and proved hugely influential in its ideas and imagery, inspiring other works like Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread and Camus’ The Stranger.

It begins when a drifter named Frank Chambers visits a diner and is offered a job by the proprietor, Nick Papadakis. Frank is not usually one to stick around and work a paycheck but he feels an intense attraction to the man’s much younger wife, Cora, and after deciding to stay a while, the two initiate an affair.

The pair eventually develop a scheme by which they intend to kill Nick, making it appear to be an accident. Things however do not run smoothly and soon Frank and Cora find themselves under police scrutiny…

The first thing that strikes me about this novel is just how confident and direct Cain’s writing is. Even eighty-five years later it still possesses a striking raw quality that perfectly fits the tone of the story and helps to establish the main characters. Few debut novelists find their voice so early and so clearly.

Cain wastes little time in establishing the premise and the relationships between Frank, Cora and Nick, creating a compelling and tense situation. Nick is oblivious to the affair going on behind his back but we quickly learn that Cora is looking for a way out and she sees this new relationship with Frank as her answer, planning to lean on him to help dispose of her husband.

Cora is the archetypal femme fatale, being young, seemingly vulnerable and yet uncompromising with an apparent masochistic streak. There is, of course, a way that Frank and Cora could be together – they could just skip town – but she cannot walk away from the business and the prospect of getting Nick’s money. Frank knows the dangers inherent in what she asks him to do and yet he wants her badly enough that he will put himself at risk, acting almost as if he is under compulsion by ignoring his own concerns.

Knowing that she opts to pursue a more dangerous approach to ridding herself of her husband, it is hard to see Cora as a sympathetic character. We learn a little about her backstory, marrying young and working in the kitchens but Nick is clearly not a tyrant, making him a rather undeserving corpse. Instead her desire to leave him seems rooted in racism and xenophobia because of his Greek background, leaving me with little sympathy for her.

The relationships between Frank, Nick and Cora are wonderfully ambiguous at times. We might wonder, for instance, whether Cora is as mad about Frank as she appears and certainly Frank’s own interest in her waxes and wanes. This is not as a result of some oversight on Cain’s part but rather it is the whole point of the novel as it builds to a moment in which we have to question those feelings and judge for ourselves. That moment struck me as really powerful and while I have my reading of that relationship, I could conceive others coming away with a different impression that could just as easily be supported by the material.

Though the novel is pretty short, Cain packs it with plenty of incident and quite a few surprises. Nothing seems to go smoothly for the pair and there are a few significant problems that set the narrative into new and interesting directions, particularly once lawyers become involved.

Perhaps the weakest element of the novel is that it seems pretty clear where the action will be headed yet I think it would be unfair to blame it for any familiar plot elements. This is a novel that has clearly been emulated many times since being written yet I suspect it would have been a lot more shocking, particularly its ending, at the time.

This seems a pretty pointless quibble when the quality of the story is otherwise so high. I found The Postman Always Rings Twice to be quite an engrossing and striking read. Sometimes when you read a book that is labeled a classic the results are disappointing. Happily my experience here was excellent, being the rare case of a book that meets its reputation. It may not be quite perfect in every regard but the story is strong and powerful while the situations are really engrossing. If you have never read it, I strongly recommend seeking out a copy.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by blunt instrument (How)

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

scarlet
A Study in Scarlet
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1947
Sherlock Holmes #1
Followed by The Sign of Four

Yesterday I teased on my Twitter account that this week I would be discussing the first appearance of one of the most iconic detectives in literature. That detective is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Though A Study in Scarlet introduced readers to Sherlock Holmes it was not my first encounter with the character. That was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which I followed with the other short story collections and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

By the time I reached A Study in Scarlet I must have been about twelve years old. I recall being tremendously excited that my secondary school library had a copy and checking it out, looking forward to experiencing this piece of literary history for myself. Unfortunately twelve-year-old me ended up being somewhat disappointed with the tale but I have revisited it several times since then and found I appreciated aspects of it more than I did back then.

The story begins by introducing us to Dr. John Watson, an army medical officer who has returned to England to convalesce after being wounded in service in Afghanistan. A friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes who, he notes, is rather odd but in need of someone to share lodgings with in the city. He soon becomes curious about Holmes’ work and is invited along when the consulting detective is summoned by Inspector Gregson to take a look at a strange crime scene.

They find a man dead with a grotesque expression on his face. There are no signs indicating a physical altercation about the corpse or in the room but a word ‘Rache‘ has been written on the wall in blood…

When reading this I am always struck by just how effective these opening chapters are and how well Conan Doyle establishes the characters of Watson and Holmes. Later stories add more details to both men’s lives but I think the core elements of each character’s personality are present already and I really enjoy their interactions.

Probably my favorite of these moments occurs early in the second chapter. It is a passage in which Watson attempts to catalog Holmes’ limitations only to give up in frustration. Holmes intrigues and yet baffles Watson as he cannot understand the detective’s absolute focus on developing some skills and knowledge at the expense of other, more everyday pieces of information.

What I like about this section and, indeed, the character of Holmes in general is that he is established to be flawed rather than superhuman. Watson likes him and so we are inclined to do so as well and yet it is clear that he could be frustrating company. Perhaps more importantly though the flaws help justify the brilliance and there is something quite entrancing about following his deductions and investigative process even if it is rarely fair play.

Similarly I think the two sequences in which Holmes and Watson investigate crime scenes are quite effectively written, particularly the first one. The message written in blood on the wall is perhaps an excessively dramatic touch (though it was one of the parts of the novel that really worked for me as a pre-teen) but I think the puzzle is surprisingly subtle. Holmes’ observations and explanations are clever and when the circumstances of the murders are explained in the final chapters of the novel I think the crime scenes make sense.

The problems with the book are found in its second half which suddenly diverges from the style and tone of the story up until that point, telling a historical narrative. This was an enormous shock to me when I first read it as it doesn’t feel integrated into Watson’s narrative. It wasn’t what I had been expecting and didn’t match what I wanted from the book at all, striking me as dull.

On revisiting the novel I find more to appreciate in these chapters. While the change of style and setting is quite abrupt, I think Conan Doyle’s depiction of the landscape and the realities of a harsh journey in the first chapter are quite striking and evocative. There is a sense of isolation and a need to survive in difficult circumstances that I think he really conveys well.

What doesn’t work for me is the tone of the second half of the novel in which every emotion is heightened to an absurd degree. Whether it is a moment of sickly sweetness in the midst of despair or the “so it has been decreed” speeches, this second half of the book lacks subtlety of character or in terms of the situations Conan Doyle creates. I would even say that it is so over the top that rather than encouraging empathy it makes the plight of the characters seem unreal.

The return to London and the narrative voice of Dr. Watson is welcome and the final few chapters of the book do a good job of pulling together the information and explaining how Holmes was able to identify the killer. Some aspects of their motivation and plan are explained and while Conan Doyle still employs that heightened, dramatic tone at times, I think he finds a better balance with the colder analytical voice of Sherlock Holmes to end on a stronger note.

Were it not for its status as the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes I suspect we would not remember A Study in Scarlet as a standout story. It has some wonderful moments that establish the characters of Holmes and Watson as well as two interesting murders but the second half of the book feels drawn out and very heavy. Still, it is a landmark adventure for the character and for that reason alone I think it is worth experiencing.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by Poison (How)

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

CloudsofWitness
Clouds of Witness
Dorothy L. Sayers
Originally Published 1926
Lord Peter Wimsey #2
Preceded by Whose Body?
Followed by Unnatural Death

There was a point about two-thirds of the way into Clouds of Witness where I wondered to myself why I hadn’t rated it more highly when I first read it. You see, while I have fond memories of the Lord Peter stories from my early forays into detective fiction I have very little memory of the first few stories.

The setup is rather promising as Lord Peter, upon returning from a trip to Sicily, learns that his brother has been arrested and is set to be tried for the murder of his sister’s fiancé. After quickly gathering some details from a newspaper account, he returns to the family home to poke around with the help of his detective friend Inspector Parker.

Lord Peter’s brother claims that he had confronted Cathcart earlier in the evening about an accusation of cheating at cards. He expects Cathcart to defend himself but instead he walks out saying that he was calling the engagement off anyway. After a restless evening he took a walk and on returning to the house stumbled over the body. He refuses to give any kind of alibi while the sister has locked herself away in her room. Lord Peter will have to save a man who is doing nothing to save himself with little help from his family.

The early part of the story showcase Peter’s methodical approach as they track footprints, follow trails and identify clues around the household. This process is not flashy and there are few surprises with much of their work simply confirming observations already made but I do think Sayers effectively communicates the pressure of needing to find something to clear the brother’s name.

These chapters also provide some much-needed context for Lord Peter, giving the reader a greater sense of who he is and what forces have molded him. I commented in my review of the first novel that the character struck me as flippant and frustrating and while those attributes still exist in this second outing, the character seems softened by comparison with his brother Gerald and their mother not to mention some of the others from their social set.

Sayers also makes some interesting choices in some of the settings she chooses to place him into in the course of this adventure, using the contrast or absurdity of a situation to draw out different parts of his character. A trip to a socialist club for instance not only gives a glimpse into some of Peter’s social and political views, it also fleshes out his relationship with another character and provides some interesting plot developments. He can certainly still be annoying, evasive and appear snobbish but there were more moments in this story where I actually liked him which feels like a step in the right direction.

I mentioned that I felt that the mystery had a promising beginning and I do think that the story touches on some interesting ideas about honor and social values that make it a surprisingly rich read. The problem is that it never takes the material in an unexpected direction.

An example of the sort of thing I am talking about relates to the question of Gerald’s lack of an alibi. There is an obvious explanation that the reader is likely to immediately think of and, what’s more, that Lord Peter considers for a moment in an abstract sense but he never tries applying that idea to the situation. He ought to at least suspect what that explanation may be and yet he seems utterly surprised when the idea suddenly occurs later in the story. There are plenty of other examples.

There is a frustrating disconnect between Lord Peter’s imagination on small details such as the possible meanings of fragments of a letter and his ability to see the bigger picture. If this were rooted in a character issue like his closeness to the investigation then that may have been more understandable but instead it feels like a convenient way to try to slow a story down.

The eventual explanation for what happened on the night of Cathcart’s death is completely underwhelming after chapters of careful investigation and speculation. Too much of the resolution is delivered to Lord Peter rather than proved by his stitching together clues to form a convincing narrative, feeling like a missed opportunity. While there are some very exciting and dramatic moments around the case, those hoping for a solid puzzle to unravel may feel underwhelmed by how little there is ultimately to discover.

There is no denying however that the ending is delivered with some style and while I could get frustrated at pages of solid French writing (translated shortly afterwards into English), I think the effect works nicely to give the sense of a much wider world beyond the events shown here. There is a rather charming and unexpected coda which not only places a fun cap on this story but also goes some way towards showing us Lord Peter and Parkers’ respective personalities.

There are some entertaining adventure sequences throughout the novel with a highlight involving a careless fall that puts Lord Peter’s life in jeopardy. I thought Sayers’ writing clear and easy to follow while the tension of the situation is brilliantly conveyed. I similarly appreciated a very brave action that Lord Peter takes towards the end of the novel which speaks to the character’s sense of dedication and commitment to grow.

For all of its faults, Clouds of Witness is a more entertaining and interesting work than its predecessor. Sayers’ mystery lacks a punchy or unexpected resolution but there are some entertaining action sequences built around it and some nice character moments for Lord Peter. I look forward to reading the next story, Unnatural Death, which is another one I barely remember but which I hope will prove a more complete and challenging work.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Adventures
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1892
Sherlock Holmes #3
Preceded by The Sign of Four
Followed by The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

This is a revisitation for me as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the first mystery book I ever bought. I was on a class field trip to a National Trust house and saw one of those cheap paperback copies in the gift shop and, remembering that my Dad likes mysteries thought he might enjoy it. Yes, I was one of those relatives though in my defence I was only eight years old.

It turns out that Dad, who had been a member of the Sherlockian society for years, already had read it but he read some of the stories to me and I worked through the others myself. I have frequently revisited them over the years though normally I pick at them rather than taking them in bulk as a collection.

Individual comments on each story will follow but I do appreciate the variety to be found in this collection. Most of these stories work because they are centered on very simple ideas and while the reader will have no chance of working out the solutions to many of them, they generally satisfy because of their creativity.

The best stories, in my view, are those which focus on a small, simple puzzle in which Holmes has to make sense of seemingly disconnected ideas. The Red-Headed League is a wonderfully imaginative story while The Copper Beeches boasts a very clever premise. The standard is pretty universally strong and while I think many of these stories are not fair play detective stories, most are excellent adventure yarns.

Of course, revisiting mystery stories does present problems in that it is hard to know just how well structured and clued a story is. In this case I read the book for the first time close to twenty years ago and many of the solutions stick clearly in my mind. Regardless I had fun revisiting these and think several of the plots are quite ingenious.

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

morbid
A Morbid Taste for Bones
Ellis Peters
Originally Published 1977
Brother Cadfael #1
Followed by One Corpse Too Many

What causes a book or a character to become popular? In the case of the Cadfael books, perhaps a better question would be to ask what caused them to cease to be so.

I am a child of the nineties and for those who were interested in mystery fiction in that period, Brother Cadfael was one of the biggest names in the genre. While I didn’t watch the television series, Ellis Peters’ novels were a fixture in the mystery sections of any competent booksellers and I remember other historical mysteries being sold with recommendations from TV star Derek Jacobi emblazoned on their covers so clearly the character had a following.

In the decades that have followed the series seems to have suffered a decline. Some of that would be an inevitable result of the television series having long since ended but from I also feel there has been a rising critical sentiment expressed towards the books. Take for instance this review of the book I’m writing about today from Puzzle Doctor in which he expresses the view that this is something of a snoozefest as well as not being a very well plotted mystery or this more tepid one from Rhapsody in Books which likens it to drinking light beer.

I first read A Morbid Taste for Bones when I went off to university, pilfering a copy from my father’s bookshelf (long since returned, I should add). My memories of the novel were quite positive so I was curious to see whether, having since become much more widely read in the genre, I would think it held up. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I still felt it did though, reading it with some of those criticisms in mind I can certainly acknowledge that there are some very valid criticisms to be made. Before I do so however I should probably outline the book for those few readers who didn’t try it back in its heyday.

Brother Cadfael is a former crusader who, upon his return, has opted for a monastic life of tending to the gardens at the abbey of Shrewsbury. The book opens with one of his fellow monks claiming to have had a vision of an obscure Welsh saint. This prompts the abbot to a party to set out on a journey to Gwytherin to claim her remains as a relic for their order and while Cadfael is a skeptic of this mission, he arranges to come along to act as an interpreter for these English-speaking monks.

After easily winning the assent of both the local church and secular authorities, they assume that it will be an easy matter to convince the community to relinquish the body but they encounter some unexpected resistance from a village leader. When that man is found murdered, Cadfael finds he is suspicious of everybody except the man blamed for the crime and starts to investigate.

Well, I say investigate but beyond looking at the body, inferring some aspects of how the man died and presenting a strong reason why the accused was innocent, his investigation mostly consists of setting traps that don’t work. In this respect I grant that Puzzle Doctor has a valid point – the mystery elements are weak and the plotting is far simpler than fans of historical mysteries may be used to. I think however that to judge the book purely as a mystery sort of misses the point.

Ellis Peters did not invent the historical mystery but she is widely credited with their popularization. What I think makes her work important is that she is able to create and sustain a series detective in a pre-industrial setting, creating a background that provides him with the skills he will need to be a credible investigator and finding natural ways to bring him into each case.

We may take it for granted these days that crimes took place in every period of history and could be solved but I think readers accept this because of Peters’ efforts. Even if later authors refined the techniques and improved on her style or storytelling approach, telling more conventional mysteries, Peters demonstrated that a character could credibly prove that someone committed a crime by looking at evidence and making logical deductions. She proved that if you provide readers with characters they could connect to, that they would be able to appreciate a story set in a period or region they may not know very much about.

Let’s go back to the specific details of this book. Cadfael is able to deduce from the state of the victim’s clothes, the geography of the crime scene, the appearance of the arrow and his personal knowledge of the suspect that they would be extremely unlikely to have committed the murder in the way assumed. From that he is able to suppose that if the person the evidence suggests did not do it then the evidence has been made to suggest it for a reason. None of this involves forensics or psychological analysis and yet from these judgments a whole set of ideas arise that will inform the rest of the investigation.

The critics are right to charge that the mystery is simplistic but then we need to keep this book in the context of the era in which it was written. Peters had every reason to question whether audiences would accept that a figure from this period could possibly engage in anything approaching ratiocination and the fact that the mysteries and their solutions are more simplistic reflects an effort to ensure that audiences could accept that.

Similarly, the introduction of romantic subplots may come off as manipulative and repetitive but it is hardly without precedent in the mystery genre. How many times did Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr, for instance, end a story with seemingly doomed lovers pledging themselves to each other? I don’t think the two romances in this novel are particularly interesting but I equally don’t find them objectionable – they just provide credible character motivations.

What I do find compelling are the politics of the ecclesiastical characters and the cynicism the author ascribes to some of their motives. Writing about religious characters can be inherently tricky, particularly when discussing some aspects of belief that some readers may find difficult to take seriously such as the background given to Saint Winifred, but Peters manages to avoid making blanket statements and instead focuses on the individual decision making of human characters. Other books, such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose may take these ideas further and do more interesting things with them but I think Peters deserves credit for integrating them into her own work.

The other most frequent complaint about the novel relates to its pacing which is certainly leisurely. The murder does take place until well into the novel, meaning that the first part of the book is largely about an argument. I believe that this not only reflects that the book is conceived of as a mixture of historical fiction and mystery fiction, discussing themes of sainthood and the development of religious tradition in addition to telling its mystery story rather than conceiving of the historical themes and the mystery itself as a single cohesive idea. Remove the murder from this book and I think the story still works as a historical and theological drama. Remover the debates and the mystery would still make sense. The problem for the reader is that if you’re not interested in one of those two elements then whole chunks of this novel are bound to be dry reading.

To take all of these points together, I think it is clear why this book and the series it spawned was groundbreaking at the time and why it found an audience. A consequence of its success has been that the second and third generations of historical mystery writers do not feel the need to simplify or to convince their readers that a medieval person really could solve these sorts of crimes and this, as a result, feels a little old fashioned and awkward.

Personally I still enjoy the book immensely, in large part because I do find the religious politics so interesting and also because I liked the characterization of several supporting characters. I do recognize though that such things have a fairly narrow appeal and I would certainly not suggest that just because a book is historically significant means that it should be liked. Its popularity in the nineties was exaggerated and I think its ubiquity is at least partly responsible for the subsequent backlash against it.

Lastly, for those who haven’t tried it but are interested, I can recommend the excellent audio book reading by the marvellous Patrick Tull. This is one of those great cases of the right narrator being given a book that suits their style and I think he does a wonderful job with this material. The simple approach to plotting makes this easy to digest in audio format and I think his gravelly voice is absolutely perfect for Cadfael.

Wobble to Death by Peter Lovesey

I have previously written about the second of the Cribb novels, The Detective Wore Silk Drawers in my very first post on this blog, so I felt I needed to come up with a good reason to jump back in the series order to revisit the first novel.

My excuse came when my parents were visiting as they brought over DVDs of the Sergeant Cribb series. I had fond memories of these adaptations having viewed them when I was first getting excited about crime fiction and I was curious to see whether they lived up to my memory.

The Novel

Wobble
Wobble to Death
Peter Lovesey
Originally Published 1970
Sergeant Cribb #1
Followed by The Detective Wore Silk Drawers

Wobble to Death is a novel with a really striking concept. Actually, I think a case can be made that the setting for this story is so interesting and unusual the mystery aspect of the novel inevitably plays a sort of second fiddle to the descriptions and period details that fill the book.

The story is set during a pedestrianism contest, also known as a ‘wobble’, in which competitors walk around an indoor track for several days to win a cash prize and title. Lovesey depicts the event as colorful and attracting an interesting mix of competitors and the book is at its best when discussing some of the mechanics of the event and the personalities of the people who choose to participate.

Early in the race (though quite a way into the novel) one of the front-runners dies and soon the Police have cause to believe the deceased was murdered. Rather than stop the proceedings, the race continues to proceed resulting in some comical moments where Sergeant Thackeray has to interrogate witnesses while walking the circuit himself.

Cribb is a slightly unorthodox lead investigator in that he delegates much of his work to his long-suffering assistant Thackeray and has a somewhat lazy approach to his profession. This sort of laid back approach to sleuthing does suit the author’s focus and the two make for an entertaining and likeable pair.

With so much attention being given to the mechanics of the race, including regular summaries of the racers’ positions given at the end of chapters, unsurprisingly the mystery suffers a little and feels quite simple. This is a shame because there are some really memorable characters amongst the suspects and the explanation of what has happened seems a little bland when considered against the story’s backdrop.

The Adaptation

Cribb

My strongest memory of watching this production was how well the setting was realized and while I think the grime of the walking track doesn’t quite live up to the filth described in the book, I still think this does a good job of visualizing the novel.

Unfortunately I think the adaptation does suffer a little for being compressed to fit a forty-five minute format. Firstly, the adaptation has Cribb and Thackeray in the building observing the race on the off-chance of something happening which avoids some repetition of the basic facts of the case but feels rather odd. Second, we lose some of the business that happens around the murders between the competitors. Finally, there are just fewer interviews which, combined with the previous point, means that the competitors do not feel anywhere near as fully formed as they do in the novel.

Turning to the casting, Alan Dobie captures some of Cribb’s indolent personality but the character’s most defining characteristic – his piccadilly weepers, a sort of long, bushy side-whisker – are conspicuous in their absence. I do think that having him proactively be present at the scene of the crime it actually undermines the character’s relaxed attitude towards his work though I can understand that the pacing of the novel makes it hard to convert into short-form television.

I do think that some of the supporting cast here are excellent however, particularly Michael Elphick as the promoter, Sol Herriot. When I read the book I visualize the character just as he appears here both in style and manner so that casting worked perfectly for me. Kenneth Cranham is similarly very good in the part of the Doctor, Francis Mostyn-Smith although it took me a while to decipher who it was through the facial hair!

While I still think this is an entertaining piece of television, especially the moody chase sequence towards the end, I do think that the mystery becomes hard to follow as a result of the trims. After Cribb collars the criminal, Thackeray questions how Cribb came by the solution and I think based on what the audience sees we may wonder the same whereas the book felt decidedly fair.

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

Devilinabluedressbook
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

DevilinaBlueDressmovie

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.