Publisher's Weekly, strangely, described Walter Mosley's debut novel as "jaunty." That is not at all the word I would use for Devil in a Blue Dress. Set in 1950, it is the first in a cycle of novels featuring Easy Rawlins, a veteran recently fired from his job at an airplane manufacturing plant. Needing money, he takes a commission to find a lady recently seen in the company of a gangster. If you know your Chandler, then trying to find people who don't want to be found, in the presence of people who don't want anybody to find them, invariably leaves violence and corpses as the story progresses.
Plotwise, there isn't anything new at all in this book. Even the sex scene, once a bruised and beaten Easy falls into the arms of his femme fatale, proceeds with a weary sense of inevitability. But what I had never seen before in earlier work in this genre is the strong characterization and sense of place. Mosley's ability to build a 1950 that audiences have rarely had chances to see - the poor black neighborhoods of postwar Los Angeles - is downright amazing. It's a world where the bigotry and secrecy are natural and uncompromising, and where nothing is really left buried.
Violence is just an expected ingredient in hard-boiled, or California-based, detective fiction, but the sheer brutality of this book is nevertheless eye-popping. DeWitt Albright, the man who hires Easy, is revealed early on to have a sadistic, cruel side that overpowers everything and leaves our hero very uncertain about continuing, but then we meet Mouse. Oh, man. Mouse is a violent former associate of Easy's who stays in Texas most of the time. Dropping him into the proceedings is like lobbing a grenade into a burning building. Yeah, the force of the explosion might blow out the nearest flames, but at one hell of a cost.
In the end, the book is most satisfying if the reader is watching how this events affect Easy. The heroes of Ross McDonald or Raymond Chandler novels are wired to handle these kinds of escalating messes of lies and emotion. Easy isn't. While the outcome of the plot is fairly obvious from about thirty pages in, the impact on his character is less certain. Readers will be confident that he'll make it out in one piece, but the cost might be a little higher, and a little more honest, than what earlier writers have doled out on their casts. Recommended.