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Set in the late 1940s, in the African-American community of Watts, Los Angeles, Devil in a Blue Dress follows Easy Rawlins, a black war veteran just fired from his job at a defense plant. Easy is drinking in a friend’s bar, wondering how he’ll meet his mortgage, when a white man in a linen suit walks in, offering good money if Easy will simply locate Miss Daphne Monet, a blonde beauty known to frequent black jazz clubs.
FOR WALTER MOSLEY’S
EASY RAWLINS NOVELS
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS
“Devil in a Blue Dress is a brilliant novel. Period. Mosley’s prose is rich, yet taut, and has that special musical cadence that few writers achieve. His psychological insights are on-target without being self-indulgent and never get in the way of a sensationally suspenseful story.”
“The social commentary is sly, the dialogue fabulous, the noir atmosphere so real you could touch it. A first novel? That’s what they say. Amazing. Smashing.”
“A strong novel, with a skillful understanding of the genre and a lively talent for invention.”
—The New Yorker
“A sparkling debut novel … [A] rich storytelling legacy is constantly and wonderfully present in Devil in a Blue Dress.”
“A beautifully realized homage to hard-boiled fiction…. Mosley has given American crime fiction another unique hero and a solid mystery, all the way to the brilliant, existential last page.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Mosley has a lot of fun upending our preconceptions…. Best of all is Mosley’s main creation, Easy Rawlins, a man as hard-nosed as he needs to be, yet still capable of relishing decency when he finds it.”
“This guy has the magic. Devil in a Blue Dress is, without question, the most self-assured, uniquely voiced first novel I’ve ever read. Mosley’s going to be compared with Chandler, but he has a clarity and precision that Chandler never achieved—and a relevance.”
“Mosley writes well. The scenes between Easy and his adversaries, both black and white, are nicely handled, and the dialogue’s shifts in tone and temper, depending on which race Easy is dealing with, are worth remarking.”
“Mosley re-creates the era convincingly … evoking the uneasy combination of freedom and disillusion in the postwar black community and revealing a tough, fresh perspective on Los Angeles history.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“It is, in some respects, the best of Mosley’s novels…. Gone Fishin’ firmly establishes Mosley as a writer whose work transcends the thriller category and qualifies as serious literature. … Mosley displays a pitch-perfect gift for capturing the cadences of black speech that rivals the dialogue in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.”
“A powerfully raw, lyrical coming-of-age story…. This late encounter with the early Easy offers an extra dimension to readers who have met, in previous stories, the man he grew to be.”
A LITTLE YELLOW DOG
“The best book yet in this fine series. Easy Rawlins [is] one of the most distinctive voices in crime fiction.”
“[A] well-energized and crafty volume.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Detective fiction at its best-bold, breathtaking, and brutal.”
“As always, Mosley’s grip on character is compelling.”
“Rawlins … might be the best American character to appear in quite some time.”
“Compelling…. In all of American fiction, only Richard Wright treats America’s race problem more savagely.”
—Village Voice Literary Supplement
A RED DEATH
“Fascinating and vividly rendered … exotic and believable, filled with memorable and morally complex situations.”
—The Wall Street Journal
BOOKS BY WALTER MOSLEY
PUBLISHED BY POCKET BOOKS
Devil in a Blue Dress
A Red Death
A Little Yellow Dog
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Washington Square Press Publication of
Copyright © 1990 by Walter Mosley
“Crimson Stain” copyright © 2002 by Walter Mosley
Published by arrangement with W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
For information address W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110
First Washington Square Press trade paperback printing September 2002
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Cover art by Don Kilpatrick III
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FOR JOY KELLMAN, FREDERIC TUTEN,
AND LEROY MOSLEY
I WAS SURPRISED TO SEE A WHITE MAN walk into Joppy’s bar. It’s not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. One lick of strawberry-blond hair escaped the band of his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes; not a color I’d ever seen in a man’s eyes. When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948.
I had spent five years with white men, and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself. I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was.
The white man smiled at me, then he walked to the bar where Joppy was running a filthy rag over the marble top. They shook hands and exchanged greetings like old friends.
The second thing that surprised me was that he made Joppy nervous. Joppy was a tough ex-heavyweight who was comfortable brawling in the ring or in the street, but he ducked his head and smiled at that white man just like a salesman whose luck had gone bad.
I put a dollar down on the bar and made to leave, but before I was off the stool Joppy turned my way and waved me toward them.
“Com’on over here, Easy. This here’s somebody I want ya t’meet.”
I could feel those pale eyes on me.
“This here’s a ole friend’a mines, Easy. Mr. Albright.”
“You can call me DeWitt, Easy,” the white man said. His grip was strong but slithery, like a snake coiling around my hand.
“Hello,” I said.
“Yeah, Easy,” Joppy went on, bowing and grinning. “Mr. Albright and me go way back. You know he prob’ly my oldest friend from L.A. Yeah, we go ways back.”
“That’s right,” Albright smiled. “It must’ve been 1935 when I met Jop. What is it now? Must be thirteen years. That was back before the war, before every farmer, and his brother’s wife, wanted to come to L.A.”
Joppy guffawed at the joke; I smiled politely. I was wondering what kind of business Joppy had with that man and, along with that, I wondered what kind of business that man could have with me.
“Where you from, Easy?” Mr. Albright asked.
“Houston, now that’s a nice town. I go down there sometimes, on business.” He smiled for a moment. He had all the time in the world. “What kind of work you do up here?”
Up close his eyes were the color of robins’ eggs; matte and dull.
“He worked at Champion Aircraft up to two days ago,” Joppy said when I didn’t answer. “They laid him off.”
Mr. Albright twisted his pink lips, showing his distaste. “That’s too bad. You know these big companies don’t give a damn about you. The budget doesn’t balance just right and they let ten family men go. You have a family, Easy?” He had a light drawl like a well-to-do Southern gentleman.
“No, just me, that’s all,” I said.
“But they don’t know that. For all they know you could have ten kids and one on the way but they let you go just the same.”
“That’s right!” Joppy shouted. His voice sounded like a regiment of men marching through a gravel pit. “Them people own them big companies don’t never even come in to work, they just get on the telephone to find out how they money is. And you know they better get a good answer or some heads gonna roll.”
Mr. Albright laughed and slapped Joppy on the arm. “Why don’t you get us some drinks, Joppy? I’ll have scotch. What’s your pleasure, Easy?”
“Usual?” Joppy asked me.
When Joppy moved away from us Mr. Albright turned to look around the room. He did that every few minutes, turning slightly, checking to see if anything had changed. There wasn’t much to see though. Joppy’s was a small bar on the second floor of a butchers’ warehouse. His only usual customers were the Negro butchers and it was early enough in the afternoon that they were still hard at work.
The odor of rotted meat filled every corner of the building; there were few people, other than butchers, who could stomach sitting in Joppy’s bar.
Joppy brought Mr. Albright’s scotch and a bourbon on the rocks for me. He put them both down and said, “Mr. Albright lookin’ for a man to do a li’l job, Easy. I told him you outta work an’ got a mortgage t’pay too.”
“That’s hard.” Mr. Albright shook his head again. “Men in big business don’t even notice or care when a workingman wants to try to make something out of himself.”
“And you know Easy always tryin’ t’be better. He just got his high school papers from night school and he been threatenin’ on some college.” Joppy wiped the marble bar as he spoke. “And he’s a war hero, Mr. Albright. Easy went in with Patton. Volunteered! You know he seen him some blood.”
“That a fact?” Albright said. He wasn’t impressed. “Why don’t we go have a chair, Easy? Over there by the window.”
JOPPY’S WINDOWS WERE SO DINGY that you couldn’t see out onto 103rd Street. But if you sat at a small cherry table next to them, at least you had the benefit of the dull glow of daylight.
“You got a mortgage to meet, eh, Easy? The only thing that’s worse than a big company is the bank. They want their money on the first and if you miss the payment, they will have the marshal knocking down your door on the second.”
“What’s my business got to do with you, Mr. Albright? I don’t wanna be rude, but I just met you five minutes ago and now you want to know all my business.”
“Well, I thought that Joppy said you needed to get work or you were going to lose your house.”
“What’s that got to do with you?”
“I just might need a bright pair of eyes and ears to do a little job for me, Easy.”
“And what kind of work is it that you do?” I asked. I should have gotten up and walked out of there, but he was right about my mortgage. He was right about the banks too.
“I used to be a lawyer when I lived in Georgia. But now I’m just another fella who does favors for friends, and for friends of friends.”
“What kind of favors?”
“I don’t know, Easy.” He shrugged his great white shoulders. “Whatever somebody might need. Let’s say that you need to get a message to someone but it’s not, um, convenient for you to do it in person; well, then you call me and I take the job. You see I always do the job I’m asked to do, everybody knows that, so I always have lots of work. And sometimes I need a little helper to get the job done. That’s where you come in.”
“And how’s that?” I asked. While he talked it dawned on me that Albright was a lot like a friend I had back in Texas—Raymond Alexander was his name but we called him Mouse. Just thinking about Mouse set my teeth on edge.
“I need to find somebody and I might need a little help looking.”
“And who is it you want to—”
“Easy,” he interrupted. “I can see that you’re a smart man with a lot of very good questions. And I’d like to talk more about it, but not here.” From his shirt pocket he produced a white card and a white enameled fountain pen. He scrawled on the card and then handed it to me.
“Talk to Joppy about me and then, if you want to try it out, come to my office any time after seven tonight.”
He downed the shot, smiled at me again, and stood up, straightening his cuffs. He tilted the Panama hat on his head and saluted Joppy, who grinned and waved from behind the bar. Then Mr. DeWitt Albright strolled out of Joppy’s place like a regular customer going home after his afternoon snort.
The card had his name printed on it in flourished letters. Below that was the address he’d scribbled. It was a downtown address; a long drive from Watts.
I NOTED THAT MR. DEWITT ALBRIGHT didn’t pay for the drinks he ordered. Joppy didn’t seem in a hurry to ask for his money though.
WHERE’D YOU MEET THIS DUDE?” I asked Joppy. “I met him when I was still in the ring. Like he said, before the war.”
Joppy was still at the bar, leaning over his big stomach and buffing the marble. His uncle, a bar owner himself, had died in Houston ten years earlier, just when Joppy decided to give up the ring. Joppy went all the way back home to get that marble bar. The butchers had already agreed to let him open his business upstairs and all he could think of was getting that marble top. Joppy was a superstitious man. He thought that the only way he could be successful was with a piece of his uncle, already a proven success, on the job with him. Every extra moment Joppy had was spent cleaning and buffing his bar top. He didn’t allow roughhousing near the bar and if you ever dropped a pitcher or something heavy he’d be there in a second, looking for chips.
Joppy was a heavy-framed man, almost fifty years old. His hands were like black catchers’ mitts and I never saw him in shirtsleeves that didn’t strain at the seams from bulging muscle. His face was scarred from all the punishment he had taken in the ring; the flesh around his big lips was jagged and there was a knot over his right eye that always looked red and raw.
In his years as a boxer Joppy had had moderate success. He was ranked number seven in 1932 but his big draw was the violence he brought to the ring. Joppy would come out swinging wildly, taking everything any boxer could dish out. In his prime no one could knock Joppy down and, later on, he always went the distance.
“HE GOT SOMETHING TO DO with the fights?” I asked.
“Wherever they’s a little money to be made Mr. Albright got his nose to the ground,” Joppy said. “An’ he don’t care too much if that money got a little smudge or sumpin’ on it neither.”
“So you got me tied up with a gangster?”
“Ain’t no gangster, Ease. Mr. Albright just a man with a finger in a whole lotta pies, thas all. He’s a businessman and you know when you in business sellin’ shirts and a man come up to you with a box he say done falled off’a truck, well … you just give that man a couple’a dollars and look t’other way.” He waved his catcher’s mitt at me. “Thas business.”
Joppy was cleaning one area on his counter until it was spotless, except for the dirt that caked in the cracks. The dark cracks twisting through the light marble looked like a web of blood vessels in a newborn baby’s head.
“So he’s just a businessman?” I asked.
Joppy stopped wiping for a moment and looked me in the eye. “Don’t get me wrong, Ease. DeWitt is a tough man, and he runs in bad company. But you still might could get that mortgage payment an’ you might even learn sumpin’ from ’im.”
I sat there looking around the small room. Joppy had six tables and seven high stools at his bar. A busy night never saw all his chairs full but I was jealous of his success. He had his own business; he owned something. He told me one night that he could sell that bar even though he only rented the room. I thought he was lying but later on I found out that people will buy a business that already has customers; they wouldn’t mind paying the rent if there was money coming in.
The windows were dirty and the floor was rutted but it was Joppy’s place and when the white butcher-boss came up to collect the rent he always said, “Thank you, Mr. Shag.” Because he was happy to get his money.
“So what he want with me?” I asked.
“He just want you t’look for somebody, leastwise that what he said.”
“Some girl, I dunno.” Joppy shrugged. “I ain’t ax him his business if it don’t gotta do wit’ me. But he just payin’ you to look, ain’t nobody says you gotta find nuthin’.”
“And what’s he gonna pay?”
“Enough fo’ that mortgage. That’s why I called you in on this, Easy, I know’d you need some fast money. I don’t give a damn ’bout that man, or whoever it is he lookin’ fo’ neither.”
The thought of paying my mortgage reminded me of my front yard and the shade of my fruit trees in the summer heat. I felt that I was just as good as any white man, but if I didn’t even own my front door then people would look at me like just another poor beggar, with his hand outstretched.
“Take his money, man. You got to hold on to that little bit’a property,” Joppy said as if he knew what I was thinking. “You know all them pretty girls you be runnin’ wit’ ain’t gonna buy you no house.”
“I don’t like it, Joppy.”
“You don’t like that money? Shit! I’ll hold it for ya.”
“Not the money … It’s just … You know that Mr. Albright reminds me of Mouse.”
“You remember, he was a little man lived down in Houston. He married EttaMae Harris.”
Joppy turned his jagged lips into a frown. “Naw, he must’a come after my time.”
“Yeah, well, Mouse is a lot like Mr. Albright. He’s smooth and a natty dresser and he’s smilin’ all the time. But he always got his business in the front’a his mind, and if you get in the way you might come to no good.” I always tried to speak proper English in my life, the kind of English they taught in school, but I found over the years that I could only truly express myself in the natural, “uneducated” dialect of my upbringing.
“ ‘Might come to no good’ is a bitch, Easy, but sleepin’ in the street ain’t got no ‘might’ to it.”
“Yeah, man. I’m just feelin’ kinda careful.”
“Careful don’t hurt, Easy. Careful keep your hands up, careful makes ya strong.”
“So he’s just a businessman, huh?” I asked again.
“And just exactly what kind of business is it he does? I mean, is he a shirt salesman or what?”
“They gotta sayin’ for his line’a work, Ease.”
“Whatever the market can bear.” He smiled, looking like a hungry bear himself. “Whatever the market can bear.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t worry, Ease, I’ll take care’a ya. You just call ole Joppy now and then and I’ll tell ya if it sounds like it’s gettin’ bad. You just keep in touch with me an’ you be just fine.”
“Thanks for thinkin’a me, Jop,” I said, but I wondered if I’d still be thankful later on.
I DROVE BACK TO MY HOUSE thinking about money and how much I needed to have some.
I loved going home. Maybe it was that I was raised on a sharecropper’s farm or that I never owned anything until I bought that house, but I loved my little home. There was an apple tree and an avocado in the front yard, surrounded by thick St. Augustine grass. At the side of the house I had a pomegranate tree that bore more than thirty fruit every season and a banana tree that never produced a thing. There were dahlias and wild roses in beds around the fence and African violets that I kept in a big jar on the front porch.
The house itself was small. Just a living room, a bedroom, and a kitchen. The bathroom didn’t even have a shower and the backyard was no larger than a child’s rubber pool. But that house meant more to me than any woman I ever knew. I loved her and I was jealous of her and if the bank sent the county marshal to take her from me I might have come at him with a rifle rather than to give her up.
Working for Joppy’s friend was the only way I saw to keep my house. But there was something wrong, I could feel it in my fingertips. DeWitt Albright made me uneasy; Joppy’s tough words, though they were true, made me uneasy. I kept telling myself to go to bed and forget it.
“Easy,” I said, “get a good night’s sleep and go out looking for a job tomorrow.”
“But this is June twenty-five,” a voice said. “Where is the sixty-four dollars coming from on July one?”
“I’ll get it,” I answered.
We went on like that but it was useless from the start. I knew I was going to take Albright’s money and do whatever he wanted me to, providing it was legal, because that little house of mine needed me and I wasn’t about to let her down.
And there was another thing.
DeWitt Albright made me a little nervous. He was a big man, and powerful by the look of him. You could tell by the way he held his shoulders that he was full of violence. But I was a big man too. And, like most young men, I never liked to admit that I could be dissuaded by fear.
Whether he knew it or not, DeWitt Albright had me caught by my own pride. The more I was afraid of him, I was that much more certain to take the job he offered.
THE ADDRESS ALBRIGHT HAD GIVEN ME was a small, buff-colored building on Alvarado. The buildings around it were taller but not as old or as distinguished. I walked through the black wrought-iron gates into the hall of the Spanish-styled entrance. There was nobody around, not even a directory, just a wall of cream-colored doors with no names on them.
The voice made me jump.
“What?” My voice strained and cracked as I turned to see the small man.
“Who are you looking for?”
He was a little white man wearing a suit that was also a uniform.
“I’m looking for, um … ah …,” I stuttered. I forgot the name. I had to squint so that the room wouldn’t start spinning.
- On Sale
- Jun 22, 2010
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Hachette Book Group