A Red Death by Walter Mosley

Newly reissued after its initial publication in 1992, A Red Death is the loose sequel to Walter Mosley’s magnificent debut Devil in a Blue Dress, although it is technically the third Easy Rawlins novel (Gone Fishin’, the first instalment, was unpublished until the massive success of Devil in a Blue Dress). A Red Death develops the key ideas of Devil but is a much wider-ranging, challenging and engaging novel all around. Which is saying a lot.

This is a quantum leap from an already advanced opening. When Ezekiel Rawlins swaggered onto the scene in 1990, noir had been relatively quiet, but the rise of James Ellroy in the late ’80s and the advent of Mosley certainly shook things up. Where Ellroy examined the dark and twisted corridors of Los Angeles, and particularly the corrupt LAPD in his LA Quartet, Mosley presented us with an unseen, previously pretty marginalized city.

Mosley sets his stories in Watts and around, reclaiming a black noir experience and along the way reinvigorating a genre that has generally been (in the mainstream, at least, Iceberg Slim and Chester Hines notwithstanding) fairly colour-blind. His style is less vicious, his characters less tortured (and, frankly, less torturing), but I don’t think it is much of an overstatement to consider the achievement of A Red Death as Mosley’s American Tabloid (where Devil in a Blue Dress was equivalent in scale and ambition to The Black Dahlia). That is in terms of stylistic, formal intervention and impact, rather than seeing Mosley as a kind of ghetto Ellroy-lite.

A Red Death moves from the relatively simple genre paradigms and moral simplicity of Devil in a Blue Dress to consider communism, civil rights, espionage, government corruption and an increasingly complex sense of national/ racial identity. Whilst Devil gestured towards a preoccupation with wider issues than the genre novel was able to deal with (racism, government corruption, paedophilia, interracial relationships, mortgages), it was still in thrall to its formal plot concerns. A Red Death eschews such a generically narrative-led approach for a wide-ranging meditation on Americanness (and Un-Americanness).

Part Chester Himes’ flawed hero, part Raymond Chandler’s maverick private eye, Easy Rawlins is a complex, engaging and lean creation. In Devil we saw his initiation into the murky criminal interface between white and black worlds. Rawlins aspires to be his own man, to own property, to have a good job, but is constantly undermined by outside social forces beyond his control. The only way to shirk the implacable definition America has prepared for him is to go outside of normal social interaction, to live beyond the law whilst appearing to be the very model of propriety.

To help him in this task he has his boyhood friend and dark alter-ego, Mouse, a psychopathic killer who alarms Easy and everyone he comes into contact with — with good reason, as Mouse pretty much kills anyone he sees.

It is this need to live outside of social norms that provides the backdrop to A Red Death and begins the sequence of events that leads inexorably towards death and guilt. Easy is a better person: attending college courses, helping the community out, enjoying the sunshine, going to church. Yet the government won’t allow him to be, and the IRS comes calling about the apartment blocks of which he is the (anonymous) owner. A few accusations of fraud later, Easy is the FBI’s newest informer, infiltrating First African Church to spy on a Jewish communist dissident and find some missing persons.

He also has various people after him for various reasons, suicidal tenants, church deacons dying during fellatio, house repossession, and a growing political conscience to deal with. Neatly all this links with a bit of domestic bother between Easy, Mouse and Mouse’s wife EttaMae, and the plot sprawls to eventually encompass prostitution, betrayal, the holocaust, African nationalism, manufacturing industry and the status of the black man in ’50s America. This complexity is handled in Mosley’s characteristically sure-footed fashion, seamlessly integrating important concepts with street language, moving from violence to tenderness with assurance. The book moves at quite a pace, and packs in a lot in its terse pages.

He also attends to some of the criticisms that might have been levelled at Devil, fleshing out his characters slightly more (particularly Mouse), being more even-handed in his representation of women. The relationship between black and white has become more nuanced and complicated — although there are still racist institutions, policemen and IRS agents, and Easy is trapped in a society that oppresses him because of his colour. In the leftwing Jew Chaim Wenzler, we are presented with a man who Easy trusts and comes to love. African nationalism is considered briefly (before his natural obduracy takes over: ‘I got me a home already. It might be in enemy lands, but it’s mine still and all’).

In general, the novel is richer and broader in its range than Devil. Easy’s voice has become more weary, less confused than it was — a sense that he is ageing with the century and the nation. The hardboiled cynicism is less wisecracking, more tired recognition of the essential scumminess of life. Easy ends up friendless, loverless, nearly hopeless. He has won his reputation and his money back, but in the process sacrificed nearly everything (other than his adopted son), forced to betray and spy just to keep his status as a struggling but comfortable member of society.

A Red Death continues Mosley’s reinvigoration of the genre, but it also extends and develops the noir novel. In fact, this book really shouldn’t be termed a genre novel at all. Perhaps unfairly pigeonholed as a crime writer (like Ian Rankin or James Ellroy, marginalized through genre snobbery), Mosley has modestly claimed “I am very interested in writing as well as I can … I’d like to write a really good book.” This is it.