"The Black Dick": Race, Sexuality, and Discourse in the L.A. Novels of Walter Mosley

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The streets were dark with something more than night. (Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder" 13)

Black narrative writing in America often employs a detective-like protagonist struggling against an evil society - as Theodore O. Mason, Jr., points out (182) - yet, curiously, detective fiction itself is a genre that has attracted few black writers (most notably, in decades past, Rudolph Fisher and Chester Himes). In Walter Mosley's four L.A. detective novels, he joins the small cohort of black detective fiction writers, apparently as part of a radical project to enter the mostly white, male, and conservative populist terrain of American detective fiction. At the same time, however, Mosley's often uncritical use of the traditional hard-boiled detective formula seems to work against this project by employing a black detective narrator in a previously invisible textual location - black Los Angeles. Indeed, there is a tension between Mosley's subject and his method, and this tension prompts my basic question about Mosley's L.A. novels: Are they - with their use of a black narrator, black characters, and black locations - authentically transgressive texts, or are they discursively subsumed under the detective story formula (and especially the L.A. detective fiction paradigm, as constructed by Chandler) and do they come, thus, to represent at best nostalgic traces of the hardboiled tradition? In other words, are the novels merely exotic versions of the American detective story, as opposed to subversive texts? My answer to these questions is an Ellisonian yes and no. In terms of their use of black characters and locations - and also in terms of their generic "violations" of the hardboiled detective story - Mosley's novels indeed function as texts of difference. Yet when they deploy the Chandlerian hardboiled detective and ultimately embrace the essentially conservative thematics of the L.A. detective story, Mosley's novels mute their subversiveness and reinforce the reassuring quality of formulaic detective fiction. In this light, I will read Mosley's novels as metacritical allegories that reflect a fundamental ambivalence about his own intervention into white (detective) discourse.

Two recent essays on black detective fiction decisively argue in favor of a discursive difference in texts like Mosley's L.A. novels. In "Chandler Comes to Harlem: Racial Politics in the Thrillers of Chester Himes," Peter J. Rabinowitz argues that Himes could not just imitate hardboiled novels and, as Himes claims, simply make "the face black" in his detective novels. Instead, Rabinowitz insists, the Chandlerian notion of a self-contained integrity and noir heroism is unavailable to Himes's black detectives inasmuch as "their situation . . . is inextricably tied up in racial politics" (22).(1) In another essay, "Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins: The Detective and Afro-American Fiction," Theodore O. Mason, Jr., similarly argues that, despite his use of the detective genre, Mosley breaks with the traditional white detective story through the oppositional use of black subject matter. Even more, Mason contends that Easy Rawlins discovers the inadequacy of assumed cultural knowledge - especially about race and sexuality - in the construction of self in a racist and sexist society, and thus joins other black protagonists (like Milkman in Morrison's Song of Solomon and Papa LaBas in Reed's Mumbo Jumbo) who similarly recognize the constructed nature of identity in a racist society.

Although Rabinowitz and Mason offer strong arguments in favor of a transgressive black detective fiction, both ultimately tell only part of the story, for they ignore the way in which the story and detective in Himes's and Mosley's novels reflect traditional hardboiled detective fiction. Despite Mosley's counter-discursive deployment of a black protagonist, his L.A. detective novels reinforce the conservative values of traditional American detective fiction. While (as in Chandler) Mosley's Rawlins moves through a world in which white politicians, businessmen, and cops - as well as black community leaders - are all corrupt, his novels never put "the law itself . …