Hard-Boiled Black Easy: Genre Conventions in A Red Death

By Gray, W. Russel | African American Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Hard-Boiled Black Easy: Genre Conventions in A Red Death


Gray, W. Russel, African American Review


Few mystery aficionados would quarrel with Stephen F. Soitos's ranking of Walter Mosley as that genre's preeminent African American writer ("Black Detective" 1003). Mosley's reputation derives mainly from five L. A. novels that appeared between 1990 and 1996. (1) These popular works, all featuring colors in their titles, arguably established Easy Rawlins, an unlicensed Watts troubleshooter, as the most fascinating detective to debut in the nineties and made President Bill Clinton Mosley's number one fan. Emphatically Mosley has acknowledged his effort to construct a hero with biracial appeal, one who resembles traditional white detectives in "trying to live in a world where there is no law ... trying to impose some sense of justice in a world that has no sense of justice" (Coale 203). Furthermore, Mosley freely acknowledges his attempt to use not only Rawlins but a larger black community to give a "racial-political bent" to his mysteries (203). Thus, Mosley asserts, he uses "a wide range of black characters ... to reflect ... black life as if it were human life in America, [to take] the point of view that black people are insiders rather than standing on the outside looking in" (McCullough 67). By situating his hero in a "labyrinthine and loyalty bound black community" (Coale 179), Mosley follows earlier black mystery writers. Moreover, according to Stephen Soitos, he uses standard detective conventions to critique mainstream attitudes towards race, class, and blacks (Blues 52). In his Rawlins series in particular, Mosley revives an African American literary strategy of adapting popular cultural forms to critique racial hypocrisy.

Conspicuous in his artistic development and typical of his retrospective approach, Mosley's second Rawlins novel, A Red Death (1991), views the Red witch hunt of the early 1950s from the perspective of a black man who is "one-third street-wise survivor, one-third unwitting private investigator, and one-third Robin Hood" (Mitgang C16). (2) In A Red Death Mosley nuances conventions of the hard-boiled private eye genre to the milieu of an urban black protagonist and adheres to the genre's tradition of inner-directed honor-bound heroism.

Of the conventions Mosley tailored to Easy Rawlins, perhaps none is more prevalent in the genre than the hero's arsenal of ruses, a reflection of the self-reliant ingenuity of lone agents of natural justice in corrupt cities. John Cawelti and George Grella, whose commentaries constitute a virtual poetics of the genre, provide background for other conventions tapped by Mosley in A Red Death. For example, the hero's willingness to break laws for a just cause manifests what Cawelti identifies as the detective/hero's defining "his own concept of morality and justice, frequently in conflict with the social authority of the police" (143). Another genre staple, the hero's rapport with oppressed or otherwise marginalized figures, grows out of his replacing "the subtleties of the deductive method with a sure knowledge of his world and a keen moral sense" (Grella 414). Also, resourcefulness in holding authorities at bay stems from the hero's conventional self-control and physical toughness: Unlike the hero of the classic whodunit, he usually has to withstand intimidation (Cawelti 142). Not infrequently his physical sturdiness is tested, sometimes by pre-Miranda police officers, who are, as Grella notes, "incompetent, brutal, or corrupt" (414). And almost invariably he demonstrates a capacity for administering poetic justice, an aspect of his meting out what Cawelti calls "the just punishment that the law is too mechanical, unwieldy, or corrupt to achieve" (143).

To appreciate how rapidly Mosley mastered--and surpassed--his chosen genre, we have only to compare his ensemble use of the foregoing conventions in A Red Death to their respective individual deployment in later novels by genre maestros John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. …

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