WALTER MOSLEY’s Devil in a Blue Dress: Race, Noir, and Social Critique

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This week's episode focuses on Walter Moseley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. A contrast is drawn between the observation and deductive methods of the classic detective novel exemplified in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four that we saw last week and the noir detective form that we find in Moseley’s variant. We shall see how the entire social universe of Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins in post-WWII Los Angeles is riddled with corruption at every level, including the police, the politicians, and even the Black community of which Easy is a part. The self-assurance of the classic detective is here replaced with the Black private eye's nervousness about his own personal safety. This affects his processes of detection and interposes a mode of personal alertness into the ways in which he goes about pursuing the threads of the entangled mystery. We will also highlight the structural function of the speakeasy as a chronotope that establishes the terms of social heterogeneity in the Black community in the novel and also introduces plot complications. As we shall see, the noir detective form allows Moseley to launch a scathing critique of racist hegemonic society while also helping us to empathize with the woes and tribulations of the Black detective as he attempts simultaneously to solve the mystery and also to secure some form of financial and personal safety for himself. This is in sharp contrast to anything that we find in the Sherlock Holmes novels.

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Suggested Readings

Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (1903).

Stephen K. Knight, Crime Fiction Since 1800: Detection, Death, Diversity, 2nd edition, (London: Palgrave, 2010).

Stephen K. Knight, “The Postcolonial Crime Novel,” The Cambridge Companion to the Postcolonial Novel, ed. Ato Quayson, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 166-187.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox, (New York: Grove Press, 1952).

Gene D. Philips, Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir, (University of Kentucky Press, 2000).

John T. Irwin, Unless the Threat of Death is Behind Them: Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).
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