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

by Roger A. Berger
Citation
Title:
"The Black Dick": Race, Sexuality, and Discourse in the L.A. Novels of Walter Mosley
Author:
Roger A. Berger
Year: 
1997
Publication: 
African American Review
Volume: 
31
Issue: 
2
Start Page: 
281
End Page: 
294
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Language: 
English
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Abstract:

"The Black Dick: Race, Sexuality, and Discourse in

the L.A. Novels of Walter Mosley
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 detec- tive-like protagonist struggling against an evil society-as Theodore 0.Mason, Jr., points out (182)-yet, curiously, detective fiction itself is a genre that has attracted few black writers (most notably, in decaaes 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 tex- tual 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 dis- cursively subsumed under the detective story formula (and espe- cially 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 con- servative 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 nov- els as metacritical allegories that reflect a fundamental ambiva- lence 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. nov- els. 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

Roger A. Berger is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literatures at Wichita State University and is currently writing a book on humor and comedy in sub-Saharan African literatures. His essays have appeared in Research in African Literatures, Essays in Literature, Anthropological Quarterly, and elsewhere.

African American Review, Volume 31, Number 2 O 1997 Roger A. Berger

noirheroism is unavailable to Himes's black detectives inasmuch as "their sit- uation . . . is inextricably tied up in racial politics" (22).l In another essay, "Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins: The Detective and Afro-American Fiction," Theodore 0.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 con- tends 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 recog- nize 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 deploy- ment of a black protagonist, his L.A. detective novels reinforce the conserva- tive values of traditional American detective fiction. While (as in Chandler) Mosley's Rawlins moves through a world in which white politi- cians, businessmen, and cops-as well as black community leaders-are all corrupt, his novels never put "the law itself. . . on trial" (Porter 122). Human beings and their racist institutions may be tainted, even hopelessly corrupt, in Mosley's texts, but a transcendent moral code, one that ultimately pro- vides a ground on which to judge indi- vidual actions and guide investiga- tions, remains firmly in place.

Indeed, detective fiction, beginning with its Golden Age ratiocinative texts, has always been a rather conservative genre.2 As Dennis Porter suggests in The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction, while the genre often portrays a lonely crusading detective struggling against a society dominated by evil, it nevertheless ulti- mately reassures its readers both through the detective's unshakable code of honor and through its formula- ic expectations. Moreover, detective fic- tion has contributed to the "heroiza- tion" of the police, especially during the nineteenth century, when the insti- tution of state-certified investigators was first introduced, and quite possi- bly forms a part of what Foucault terms "the discourse of the law," a dis- course intended to partake in the con- struction of a disciplinary society. "Detective novels," Porter concludes, "invariably project the image of a given social order and the implied value sys- tem that helps sustain it" (121).

The American version of this nar- rative-the traditional (white male) American hardboiled detective story- would seem, at first glance, to embody a more working-class politics; but as John M. Reilly suggests, the American detective story embraces "a disillu- sioned populism" that is "ripe for mutation into fascism" ("Politics" 29- 30) through its deployment of a tough- guy detective. This tough-guy detec- tive, as found in the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, is marked by several characteristics: experience, durability, isolation, a sense of justice, a warrior mentality, a populist individualism, a sense of iron- ic detachment, and a self-reliance that characterizes a mythic (often white- male) American self. And he frequently operates as a kind of Robin Hood fig- ure, defending the lives of ordinary people against both the supposed agents of order (the police, business- men, and politicians) and the agents of chaos (gangsters, the immoral rich, psychotic murderers, and the like). For Reilly, the American detective is an "agent for the little person" ("Politics" 27), and Dennis Porter emphasizes his use of the wisecrack and the hunch and, above all, his possession of and affection for his gun as key signifiers of

AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW

the detective's populist sensibility. Ultimately, the American detective makes "a virtue of smallness" (Porter 172) while nevertheless guaranteeing that a kind of abstract, transcendent justice will prevail. As Raymond Chandler states, "The hardboiled story . . . does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done-unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done" ("Simple" 13). The hardboiled detective thus represents a kind of modem-day knight who must go down those mean streets to battle what often seems like the irresistible power of evil.

Ironically, the tough-guy detective narrative would seem to resemble (or at least be useful to) the black narrative of resistance or opposition, yet the tra- ditional detective never operates on behalf of blacks, and ~friian Americans have almost no discursive presence in these novels (except as part of the textual landscape-in Chandler, for example, occasionally as "comical- ly" terrified hotel porters). Above all, it would seem virtually impossible to reconcile the black narrative of libera- tion with the conservative politics and poetics of the detective genre, a politics that ultimately reflects a larger American moral code from which whites have generally had few difficul- ties excluding the Africanist Other.

Mosley's task is thus a difficult one. It is not simply a matter of appro- priating a genre for one's own use, because one also has to negotiate with all of the ideological baggage that accompanies it.

Let me start by comparing two opening scenes, the first from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My el^ (1942) and the second from Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress (1990).Farewell, My Lovely begins-as Philip Marlowe, Chandler's hardboiled detective narrator, tells us-on "one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro" (143). Marlowe is on a missing person's case and notices "a big man . . . not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck" staring up at a sign above a bar. The other people on the street, "slim quiet negroes," pass "up and down the street and stare at him with darting side glances" (143). Almost immediately, we might say, racial difference is marked in terms of demographics and racial identity: The person Marlowe and everyone else notices is described as a "man," while the blacks are identi- fied in racial terms.

This large man, Moose Molloy, is, as Marlowe comments, "worth looking at" mainly because of his size and con- spicuous dress:

He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explo- sions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feath- ers tucked into the band of his hat, but he really didn't need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food. (143)

It is odd that Marlowe-who usually comments negatively on ostentatious dress and behavior, inasmuch as they are coded in Chandler's novels for fraud and fakery-finds very little wrong with Molloy. His signature excessive simile-the tarantula on the angel food (something black on white)-also seems oddly inappropri- ate. Nonetheless, Molloy stands out, even on Central Avenue, where the inhabitants are usually dressed in a lively way. Marlowe then watches Molloy go into the bar, and after seeing "a thin, narrow shouldered brown youth" get thrown out of the bar door, Marlowe takes an interest and follows after Molloy.

Marlowe soon discovers that Molloy has just gotten out of jail after eight years and is looking for his girl- friend, Little Velma, who worked at the bar. Now, however, Marlowe tries to explain to Molloy, the bar is black. Molloy doesn't listen to him and moves on into the bar itself, as Marlowe narrates:

Two more swing doors closed off the head of the stairs from whatever was beyond. The big man pushed them open

lightly with his thumbs and we went into the room. ~t was a long narrow room, not very clean, not very bright, not very cheerful. In the corner a group of Negroes chanted and chat- tered in the cone of light over a crap table. There was a bar against the right hand wall. The rest of the room was mostly small round tables. There were a few customers, men and women, all Negroes.

The chanting at the crap table stopped dead and the light over it jerked out. There was a sudden silence as heavy as a water- logged boat, Eyes looked at us, chestnut colored eyes, set in faces that ranged from gray to deep black. Heads turned slowly and the eyes in them glistened and stared in the dead alien silence of another race. (Omnibus145)

their eyes, glistening and staring at the whites in the dark. But the most impor- tant observation to be made about this scene is that it has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the novel. No one, of course, knows about Velma, and a frustrated Molloy soon beats up the bouncer and then kills the owner of the

bar. And while the police

One gets
the distinct
Sense that
Mosley fully
recognizes
that part of his
Success is

attributable

f0 a market
strategy that
exploits race
to Sell his
"exotic"
detective
novels.

assiped to the case' dis-

miss it as just another

"shine killing," ~olloy's

attack triggers an investi-

gation-what Fredric Jameson terms a search, not a murder mystery

(645). The novel does not return to this location, and indeed the killing in the bar is merely a prelude to

the series of murders that occur later on in the book.

At best, then, the bar seems to serve as one more exotic L.A. location for Chandler, yet in a sense it is not even that.

Significantly, this scene is virtually the only time a

black location appears in one of Raymond Chandler's novels, and so

Any number of observations could be made about this scene. First, the bar, unlike many of the locations that Chandler codes for L.A. hypocrisy and fraudulence, is not a pretentious place. This bar, and the people inside of it, doesn't really contribute to Chandler's sense of a mythic L.A. At the same time, Chandler imagines the blacks ambiguously-as either hostile or fear- ful, for no other reason than that their turf is being invaded. That is to say, this scene records yet one more racial- ized, cross-cultural encounter-a familiar moment in the archive of Western meetings with and representations of the Other. Marlowe might as well be exploring a discursively constructed Africa. The blacks in the bar, in Chandler's racialized imagination, stereotypically chatter and chant; and they are metonymically reduced to

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it barely contributes to what Liahna Babener terms (3andler's "geographic imagery," what she calls "the paste- board culture [of Los Angelesl where fakery prevails in both the man-made and the natural landscape" (115). Rather, it functions only on the level of plot, merely as a way to get the novel started-to connect Marlowe and Molloy, and thus to begin another investigation in the mean streets of Los Angeles. Though the presence of African Americans was dramatically increasing in 1940s' and eventually 1950s' L.A., as Marlowe inadvertently notes regarding the changing character of Central Avenue, blacks have vi?tual- ly no presence in Chandler's L.A. nov- els.3

Now compare Chandler's opening scene with the first paragraph from Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress:

I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy's bar. It's not just that he was wlte 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 smootKand pale with just a few freck- les. 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 c.olor 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.(1)

This is a somewhat similar scene-a white man enters a black bar during the 1940s (here, in 1948 as opposed to 1942)-but, of course, we are seeing the scene from the opposite point of view. The white man-a gangster, signifi- cantly named Albright-gets the atten- tion of Mosley's black detective narra- tor, Easy Rawlins. But Rawlins is not immediately hostile to Albright. Nor, as we soon discover, does anyone else stop chattering and chanting. Rawlins even notices Albright's eyes, but they are marked by their lack of color, a whiteness that matches the rest of his excessively white costume. Ultimately, Rawlins admits to feeling fear, but this momentary reaction dissipates, because his experience as a soldier in World War 11, in which he fought and killed white German soldiers, has changed his attitude toward whites in general.

Clearly, if we can use these two scenes as representative, Walter Mosley's ~.k.

detective novels seem to rewritk the hardboiled tradition, espe- cially the novels of Raymond Chandler. For Mosley, South Central

L.A.
is not merely an exotic location- or, worse, a plot device to begin a novel. Rather, it is the community where Mosley's novels are set. In a sense, Mosley elevates black L.A. in his novels into a significant location. If
L.A.
embodies,& Gerald Clarke sug- gests, an "enigmatic otherness . . .a city of dramatic extremes which remains untouchable and insubstantial" (126), then black L.A. is-to borrow a phrase
from Christopher Miller-the other's other, a photographic negative of a photographic negative, a hidden sup- plement of what already seems super- fluous. One can hardly imagine New York without ~arlem; or c6icago with- out its black South Side, but in L.A. (at least until the Rodney King incident, and perhaps not even after that) the black sectibn has seemed barely to reg- ister in the American cultural imagina- tion. As Mike Davis points out in his cultural history of L.A., City of Quartz, David Fine's recent anthology Los Angeles in Fiction mentions no black writers and no black locations. So, in a very real sense, one of Mosley's pro- jects is to give black L.A. (Watts, South Central) a discursive presence both in

L.A. literature and in the American cul- tural imagination.

Still, because Mosley also relies on the hardboiled detective genre, he must in essence combine (or, to a degree, subsume) black L.A. with(in) the more familiar Chandlerian L.A. tex- tual landscape. This L.A.-with its eclectic architecture, its soundstage-like facades, and its utter sense of tran- sience-constitutes a Waste Land-like environment that denies the possibility of authentic social action, and thus rad- ical social transformation, and only allows acts of individual resistance or accommodation. To demonstrate his literary competence or even mastery over this world, Mosley must make use of this landscape, too:

I L.A. has always been flat and fea- tureless. Anybody could be anywhere out there. The police arrested you for jaywalking or because you didn't have the brains not to brag after you hit a liquor store for the day's receipts. But if you wanted to hide from the law,

L.A. was the place to do it. There was no logic to the layout of the city. And there were more people every day. Sharecroppers and starlets, migrant Mexicans and insurance salesmen. come to pick over the money tree for a few years before they went back home. But they never went home. The money slipped through their fingers and the easy life weighed them down. (Mosley, Black Betty 61)

This rather confusing passage jumps back and forth erratically between L.A.'s illogical and "featureless" land- scape and its deracialized inhabitants, mainly because it represents a site where Mosley finds it necessary to legitimize himself as an L.A. detective writer, to invoke the Chandlerian detective discourse. "Anybodyu-the "you" in the text-means anybody (black, white, Chicano/a, and so forth). This moment thus marks the unre- solved (and, perhaps, unresolvable) tension between Mosley, the African American detective writer, and Mosley, the American hardboiled detective novelist.

Mosley's four L.A. detective novels-Devil in a Blue Dress (1990),A Red Death (1991), White Butterfly (1992), and Black Betfy (1994)-a11 present essentially the same story, and each reinforces Mosley's own ambivalent sense of the genre. In each novel, Easy Rawlins is asked (or commanded) to locate someone in the black community or to solve a series of deaths or murders. In each novel, Rawlins successfully carries out his assigned task, although in doing so he triggers some kind of violence, often a murder, which he must then attempt to solve. In Devil in a Blue Dress, Rawlins, fired by a racist supervisor at an aircraft factory and thus in danger of losing his house for nonpayment of his mortgage, is hired by a white gang- ster (Albright) to locate Daphne Monet, a white French woman often seen in the black community. As Rawlins searches for the woman, several people are killed. In the end, along with locat- ing the murderers, Rawlins eventually discovers that Monet has stolen $30,000 from Albright and that she is neither French nor white. In A Red Death, Rawlins, now a landlord with money appropriated from the $30,000 in the first novel, fights to save his house from the IRS (for nonpayment of taxes) and is thus pressured by the FBI (dur- ing the Korean War) to investigate a

Jewish labor organizer working in the

black community. Several deaths and

murders-including those of a tenant

and the labor organizer-point to

Rawlins, but he discovers that they

were all committed by a white IRS

investigator who is attempting to gain possession of Rawlins's property.

His third novel, White Butterfly, finds a now married and even wealthi- er Rawlins-at the request of the L.A. police department-investigating the separate, brutal murders of four women (three black and one white), all of whom have apparently been killed by the same person. As in the other novels, Rawlins is asked to look into the matter because the authorities have no access to the black community. The police tell him, " 'You know all kinds of people in the community. You can go where the police can't go. You can ask questions of people who aren't willing to talk to the law' " (49).4 The three black women, Rawlins finds out, were murdered by a psychotic black murderer whom the white police in Oakland incompetently failed to arrest. (They also try to cover up their incom- petence.) The white woman, however, was murdered by her racist father, who cannot tolerate his daughter's prostitu- tion. In his most recent L.A. detective novel, Black Betty, Rawlins in 1961 is commissioned to find a missing black housekeeper, Elizabeth Eady, or Black Betty. Rawlins knew Betty when he was growing up in Houston, and she has now gone into hiding after the murder of her employer (and, as we discover, rapist), the psychotic white patriarch Albert Cain. During his search, Rawlins discovers a conspiracy on the part of some of Cain's white heirs to murder Betty, her brother, and her twin children because Cain has guiltily named her the beneficiary of his vast wealth. While Rawlins is unable to save her brother or her two adult children, he is able to protect Betty, who, as might be expected, loses her legacy at the end of the novel in a lawsuit. In many ways, the novel alle- gorizes the dispossession of blacks in

AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW

white America. One Cain farm that Rawlins visits reminds him of a slave plantation: As he says after seeing workers (men, women, and children) handpick pears, " 'It's like I drove out of California, back through the south, and all the way into hell' " (118).

In a sense, of course, these novels do break with the hardboiled tradition in that race plays a major role in each. In Devil in a Blue Dress, Rawlins's unwillingness to tolerate the racist actions of his supervisor gets him fired. Later, when Rawlins visits Albright, he is confronted by one of the white gang- ster's bodyguards and stutters:

It was a habit I developed in Texas when I was a boy. Sometimes, when a white man of authority would catch me off guard, I'd empty my head of everything so I was unable to say any- thing. "The less you know, the less trouble you find," they used to say. I hated myself for it but I also hated white people, and colored people to, for making me that way. (13)

But Rawlins is also capable of perform- ing for whites, when he wants-in trickster fashion-to fool them.5 In White Butterfly, at a meeting with white investors who want to buy prop- erty from Rawlins, he comments that, after being introduced to the whites, "I nodded shyly and ducked my head in reverence. It was the way I used to grease white men in the south (127). At other times, Rawlins overtly con- fronts racist authorities. In White Butterfly, again, when the police are trying to recruit him to investigate the serial murders in the black community, Rawlins complains that

"here you come crowdin' up my livin' room an talkin' t'me like you got a blackjack in your pocketu-I was get- ting hot-"an' then you cryin' 'bout some dead girl an' I know they's been three before this one but you didn't give one good goddamn! Because they was black girls an' this one is white!" If I had been on television every colored man and woman in America would have stood from their chairs and cheered. (47-48)

Although this complaint is clearly another kind of performance (note Rawlins's ironic comment on his own actions), it nevertheless represents a critical consciousness on Rawlins's part, a consciousness of racial oppres- sion that the Chandlerian detective simply lacks.

Rawlins, in this sense, is clearly of--or at least from-the black comrnu- nity in L.A. Like many others in the community, he migrated from the South after World War 11. When he enters John's Place, a speakeasy in the

L.A. black community, Rawlins com- ments that

all of [the musicians in the bar] and John and half the people in that crowd- ed room had migrated from Houston after the war, and some before that. California was like heaven for the southern Negro. People told stories of how you could eat fruit right off the trees and get enough work to retire one day. The stories were true for the most part but the truth wasn't like the dream. Life was still hard in L.A. and if you worked every day you still found yourself on the bottom. (Devil27)6

And Rawlins, despite his growing wealth, can sympathize with the poor blacks in Los Angeles. Having been "raised on a share-cropper's farm" (Devil 11) himself, Rawlins, in a scene from White Butterfly, clearly empathizes with a profoundly injured man he must interrogate:

I looked at him for a few seconds. I didn't feel sorry for the man, because he called this misery in himself. But I felt kindred to his misery. It seemed to me that my whole life had been spent walking into shabby little houses with poor people bleeding or hacking or just dying quietly under the weight of our "liberation." I was born in a house no larger than that one. I lived there with two half sisters and one step- brother. I watched my mother die of pneumonia [there]. (97)

Above all, it is Rawlins's connection to the black community that makes him both valuable and different as a private detective. That is, Easy Rawlins is indeed a private dick much like Philip Marlowe: As Rawlins describes himself in White Butterfly, "Somewhere along the line I had slipped into the role of a confidential agent who represented people when the law broke down, And the law broke down often enough to keep me busy" (9-10). But Rawlins is also, as Mosley comments in a brief essay on his fiction, "a black dick." He has a profound understanding of the black community and a sense of hostili- ty to the white one. As such, he repeats Marlowe's role-but with a difference.

Mosley also seems to deviate from the traditional detective story formula through his use of sex and sexuality in his novels. Detective fiction, as many commentators have suggested, is often marked by a lack of overt sexual activi- ty, especially on the part of the detec- tive himself. If there is a sexual attrac- tion, it is mostly "unconsummated" (Porter 184). As Raymond Chandler suggests, "The whole point is that the detective exists complete and unchanged by anything that happens . . . . That is why he never gets the girls, never marries" (qtd. in Michael Mason 91).~But Rawlins spends a great deal of time in and out of beds, and at times his descriptions of his sexual conquests are both graphic and brutal. In Mosley's third novel, White Butterfly, Rawlins drunkenlv returns home late

i

at night and rapes his wife-something that has no small effect on her decision, at the end of the story, to leave him. Indeed, in all of his novels, Mosley includes so much black male sexual activity that he seems to invoke the stereotype of the black male's vora- cious sexual appetite, a stereotype that pervades contemporary scholarship on race, as bell hooks argues: "The por- trait of black masculinity . . . perpetually constructs black men as 'failures' who are psychologically 'fucked up,' dangerous, violent, sex maniacs whose insanity is informed by their inability to fulfill their phallocentric masculine destiny in a racist context" (89).

Mosley in essence defends his use of a brutalized black male sexualitv bv

i i

claiming that "poverty is tattooed on black and brown skins. Ignorance and violence, sex and criminality are deeply etched in Hispanic and African hues" ("Black 132); and, indeed, there

is even a sense in which Moslev criti-

cizes Rawlins's relentless heterosexual-

ity, for at the end of each novel we find

a chastened and psychologically shat-

tered Rawlins almost completely alone. Yet Rawlins's overactive libido clearly presents problems in any argument that attempts to "heroize" him, and Mosley's representation of black male

sexuality (and "criminality") as

"deeply etched in . . . African hues" indeed exemplifies rather than sub- verts hooks's description of the discur- sive criminalization of the black-male subject. What is more, Mosley's rede- ployment of sexuality ironically reposi- tions him under the rubric of white- male detective fiction, because Chandler's apparent de-emphasis of sexuality actually represents a kind of disguised sexuality, a homosocial vio- lence that binds men together. Mosley, in his novels, makes manifest (much like Mickey Spillane) what is latent in Chandler, a relentless misogyny cou- pled with an inability or unwillingness to question the underlying "law" of white patriarchal society. As bell hooks points out, "Black men who embrace patriarchal masculinity, phallocen- trism, and sexism. . .do not threaten or challenge white domination . . . but reinscribe it" (98).8 It is also important to note that Mosley's version of an essentialized black-male sexuality is complemented by a kind of insatiable black-female sexuality. Women in Mosley's detective ndvels are often either femme fatales or sexual objects who exude sexual attraction and desire. Black Betty exemplifies the lat- ter type:

There was almost a smile on [Betty's] battered face. And then there it was, that look of appreciation that Betty had for the male sex. A look that was at once hungry and satisfied. Men com- municated to Betty with their bodies and sex. She didn't care about our words or our hearts. (203)

The suggestion is made here that Betty is in a sense responsible for Cain's ear-

AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW

lier rape of her: Her unchained sexuali- ty in essence drove him to it.

Thus, despite some discursive breaks with the genre, Mosley ulti- mately makes use of the hardboiled detective fiction tradition. Rawlins exhibits all of the characteristics of the male Chandlerian detective-moral commitment, isolation, endurance, irony, and the like-and, at the same time, inhabits what might be termed the degraded Chandlerian moral uni- verse. Clearly many people in the black community trust Rawlins, interpreting him as a kind of social bandit. As he comments,

People would come to me if they had serious trouble but couldn't go to the police. Maybe somebody stole their money or their illegally registered car. Maybe they worried about their daughter's company or a wayward son. I settled disputes that would have otherwise come to bloodshed. I had a reputation for fairness and the strength of my convictions among the poor. Ninety-nine out of a hundred black folk were poor back then, SO my rep- tation went quite a way. (Red Death

15)

At the same time that Rawlins seems acquainted with virtually everyone in the black community, he remains fun- damentally isolated, a marginal figure in South Central L.A.

His isolation both increases his effectiveness and provides him with a means to comment on the corruption that pervades both the white and black communities. In White Butterfly, Rawlins tells us that he "once thought that businessmen had some kind of honor or code" but that he is now "straightened out about that" (130). "The police," he tells us later, "could come to your house today and drag you from your bed. They could beat you until you swallow teeth and they can lock you in a hole for months" (270). In fact, everything and everyone in L.A. seems caught up in its corrup- tion, sometimes even Rawlins himself. As one character in Devil in a Blue Dress comments to Rawlins, " 'Easy, walk out your door in the morning and

you're mixed up in something' " (19). Similarly, at the end of White Butterfly, Rawlins listens to Quinten Naylor, a black police detective who has derided Rawlins, apologize:

"I always thought that I could work inside the police and keep my hands clean. I put myself above you. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I thnk you live right. But maybe I'm not so much better." (2~3)~

These moments clearly echo Chandler's Philip Marlowe, who com- ments in the famous ending to The Big Sleep:

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by thngs like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. (Omnibus139)

All that remains possible is some kind of allegiance to a masculine-warrior moral code. Even if unjustly assaulted by the police-and Rawlins is often called upon to demonstrate his extraor- dinary physical courage and endurance, because in each novel he is arrested and brutally beaten by the police-he must uphold this code. In the end of each novel, he uncovers the murderer, no matter what the personal cost. In fact, this devotion to an abstract sense of duty contributes to the

destruction of his marriage in White Butterfly.

Rawlins's acceptance of a hard- boiled detective moral code may also be seen in his adoption of what might be termed an individualist philosophy, one in which his own experience, rather than larger historical patterns, takes precedence and gives meaning to his life. Rawlins explicitly locates the cause of all of his suffering in A Red Death not in racial terms but in terms of individuality and masculinity: "I suffered all of this because I wasn't, and hadn't been, my own man" (236- 37). Later, he rejects larger historical
explanations when he comments that

I didn't even believe in history, really. Real was what was happening to me right then. Real was a toothache and a man you trusted who did you dirt. Real was an empty stomach or a woman saying yes, or a woman saying no. Real was what you could feel. History was like TV for me, it wasn't the great wave of mankind moving through an ocean of minutes and hours. (259)

Mosley himself has commented that Rawlins "has taken on a tough job in the real world: he's trying to define himself in spite of the world, to live by his own system of values. He's trying to do what is right in an imperfect world. The genre may be mystery, but the underlying questions are moral and ethical, even existential" ("Black" 133). Ultimately, Rawlins's individualist phi- losophy is underpinned by masculinist self-reliance. In Black Bettv, he visits

,'

Martin, a master cabinetmaker, who had functioned something like a sage in Rawlins's youth:

We used to go to his workshop when we were children and he'd lec- ture us about life.

"Always use your tools," he'd say. "Your tools and your house. That way they cain't take it away from ya. Don't live on no paycheck and don't never ask the man for a thing. You got what he want right here in yo' hands." He'd hold up a chisel or a pile of fresh- ly smithed square nails. "That way you gonna be a man. A'cause that's what a man is-it's what we could do. You-all be thinkin' that bein' a man got some- thing' to do wit' women, but that ain't true. Woman complement a man but he got to have his own if he wanna be wit' her. Shit! She wanna big dick what she need t'do is t'get her a horse."

Martin always made us laugh. He made us feel good about work and about who we were. Standing at his front door I realized that it was Martin who had defined my desire for proper- ty and my love of things done by hand. (151-52)

Rawlins's belief in an individualist philosophy explains many of his actions in the novels, specifically, as he suggests, his desire to own property:

first his own house, then rental proper- ty, and last business real estate. In fact, the subplot of each novel concerns Rawlins's various attempts to maintain or expand his land ownership. Home ownership in particular gives him a sense of racial equality. As he tells us in Devil in a Blue Dress, "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" (9). But Rawlins wants more than just home ownership; he wants to "own enough land that it would pay for itself out of the rent it generated" (52), and ownership of rental property reflects his desire to enter the white-American middle class. Indeed, in Black Betty, he has sunk much of his money into a scheme to build a shopping mall, perhaps the ultimate cultural icon of the postwar white-American middle class. His interest in joining the middle class is also reflected by his attempts, in all the novels, to gain a formal education. In A Red Death, Rawlins tells us about courses he's taking at Los Angeles City College-in particular, a class on Shakespeare. In White Butterfly, we see him read from Plato's Phaedo.

Still, Rawlins clearly feels anxious md uncomfortable about his social ~mbition. He believes, for example, that he must disguise his ownership of rental buildings. His apparent poverty makes him a more effective private ?ye: "Everyone knows," he tells us in A Red Death, "that a poor man's got ~othingto lose; a poor man will kill qou over a dime," and that is one rea- ;on that he keeps his "wealth a secret" 1128). At the same time, Rawlins pos- jesses almost a fanatical desire for naterial success:

I had reached out for the white man's brass ring and got caught up short, that's all. They taught me when I was a boy to stay in my place. I was a fool for forgetting that lesson, and now all I was doing was paying for that foolish-

AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW

ness. Deep inside I knew that the world wasn't going to let me be an upright businessman. It was just that I had worked so hard. Since I was a child I worked the daylight hours; sweeping, gardening, delivering, I'd done every kind of low job, and I wanted my success. I wanted it-vio- lently. (Black Betty 59)

In many ways, Easy Rawlins's ambivalent sense of his attempt to enter the middle class offers an allego- ry for Mosley's own divided struggle to gain literary recognition. In his essay "The Black Dick," Mosley explicitly connects Rawlins's ambivalent rela- tionship with the white community and his own efforts to get published. Mosley begins the essay with an extended discussion of what it is like to be poor, and he suggests that to escape poverty one must disguise it:

. . . if you want a good job you have to wear a different shirt, a shirt without its collar frayed, and good shoes, so that your potential employer won't see the desperation in you. You have to use an uncle's address so you won't be identified by neighborhood. And if you bathe and dress right and speak without an accent (without the truth coming out of your mouth)-then maybe you'll get a toehold in another world. . . . Hiding poverty and work- ing hard is how most Americans have migrated from the ghetto to suburb. ("Black" 131)

It is harder. of course.-sometimes even impo;sible-for' people of color to overcome poverty, but Mosley's four

L.A. novels essentially narrate how Rawlins escapes the black underclass. Mosley explains how he first wrote "a 'literarv' work of fiction" about

i

Rawlins and his sometimes violent partner Raymond "Mouse" Alexander that was rejected by all the publishing houses to which he submitted itlo; so, as he tells us, he "cast [his] characters into the mystery genre . . . [and] had no problem selling this book" ("Black" 132-33). In a sense, his move into detec- tive fiction, an overwhelmingly white genre, is a compromise on his part, as Mosley readily admits at the end of his essay:

I have tried to stay true to my charac- ters while getting them a toehold in the world of publishing. I gave Easy a new suit, but his skin is still black. He still talks like the streets that spawned him. He has a little money now, and some respect. But he still puts his hand down to his crotch after he's had deal- ings with the white population, and they still count their fingers after shak- ing his hand. ("Black" 133)

Mosley's adoption of detective fiction was both strategic and pragmatic, but it is a move with which he clearly feels uncomfortable. The question I believe Mosley must confront is: Can he make the genre black, or will the genre essen- tially whiten him?ll

In this regard, it is revealing that Rawlins never kills anyone in these novels. Indeed, all of the justifiable murders are committed by Rawlins's sometime friend and partner Mouse Alexander, who often'shoots the dis- covered murderer just as he is about to kill Rawlins. In Mosley's L.A. novels, Mouse is a kind of amoral double for Rawlins. As Rawlins tells us, Mouse "never felt guilt" (Devil 47), "only believes in himself" (RedDeath 37), and is "brash, wild and free" (White 145), "a killer" (Black 63) who "c[a]n't hold a moral concept" (White 223). In Black Betty, a recently paroled but homicidally enraged Mouse seeks revenge against the person who turned him in to the police. As Rawlins tells us, Mouse "couldn't help himself. He needed to kill somebody, and even though it would hurt him he'd kill me if there was nobody else to blame" (253). Mosley has thus split the hard- boiled detective into two, reflecting or almost parodying Du Bois's notion of an African-American "double-con- sciou~ness."~~

As Du Bois writes, "One ever feels his twoness,-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in the same dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder" (3). Late in his first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, Mosley suggests this Du Boisian schizophrenia And the irony of it all is that he's not in a conversation between Mouse and completely sure if it's worth the cover Easy: charge.

Ultimately, in his L.A. detective fic-

"You just like Ruby [Daphne

tion, Mosley addresses, but doesn't

Monet]," Mouse said. "What you say?" fully answer, larger questions about "She wanna be white. All them the uneasy relationship between years people be tellin' her how she

African-American literature and

light-skinned and beautiful but all the

American literature as a whole.

time she knows that she can't have

African-American authors, of course,

what white people have. So she pre- tend and then she lose it all. She can are free to intervene in any discursive love a white man but all he can love is landscape, but Mosley's entry into the white girl he think she is."

hardboiled detective fiction, a (white-

"What's that got do to with me?"

male) genre rather inimical to a pro-

"That's just like you, Easy. You

gressive struggle for racial equality,

learn stuff and you be thinkin' that what's right fo' them is right for you. justice, and freedom, carries with it a She look like she white and you think heavy price; and Mosley cannot fully like you white. (205)13

disentangle himself from the reac- tionary politics that are embedded in While Rawlins moves increasingly into the genre. At the same time, however, a white world, so Mouse remains firm- one might say that, just as there has ly rooted in a black one.

always already been an Africanist pres- Mosley's division of his detective ence in American literature, so there character into two is symptomatic of has also always already been a black his own ambivalent feelings about the presence in American hardboiled genre-about thinking as if he's a detective fiction, and Mosley is actually white detective writer, or as if writing making manifest what has previously hardboiled detective fiction is the liter- been latent. Indeed, it is Toni Morrison ary equivalent of "passing." He has who insightfully asks "whether the clearly made a name for himself in major and championed characteristics detective fiction, but, like his fictional of our national literature-individual- creation Easy Rawlins, Mosley needs to ism, masculinity, social engagement check his valuables when returning to versus historical isolation; acute and the community of black discourse.

ambiguous moral problematics; a the- Indeed, one gets the distinct sense that matics of innocence coupled with an Mosley fully recognizes that part of his obsession with figurations of death and success is attributable to a market strat- hell-are not in fact responses to a

egy that exploits race to sell his "exot- dark, abiding, signifying Africanist ic" detective novels. In a sense, then, in presence" (5).In this sense, the mean his own life, Walter Mosley has indeed streets a detective must go down are inverted Chandler's opening scene of indeed "dark with something more Farewell, My Lovely. In this case, how- than night," as Raymond Chandler ever, it's not Moose Molloy who is memorably notes ("Simple" 13).But invading a black bar but Walter Mosley Chandler, like so many other white who is intervening into a previously writers, didn't necessarily know what almost-all-white discursive terrain. he really meant.

Notes 1. See also Reilly, "Chester," for an overview of the African-Americanist politics found in Himes's detective fiction.

2. For an opposing view, see Christianson, who argues that "hardboiled detective fiction . . . seems to promote the subversion of, or resistance to, modern culture at the same time it props up that cul- ture" (145).

AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW

Other ethnic and racial minorities also have little presence in Chandler's novels-except as stereotypes. At various moments in the novels, Marlowe represents the penny-pinching Jewish pawnbroker, the ever-scowling Japanese gardener, the stoically powerful (and dangerous) Native American, and the always jovial Chicano. Chandler, of course, rejects the notion that he is anti- Semitic (see McShane, esp. 65-67), but he undoubtedly shares the general attitudes of a racist soci- ety and deploys in an unreflexive manner these attitudes in his novels.

In A Red Death, Rawlins similarly comments that the FBI agent "Craxton was smart to get a man like me, because the FBI couldn't really mount an investigation in the ghetto. The colored popu- lation at that time wasn't readily willing to tell a white man anything resembling the truth; and the FBI was made up exclusively of white men" (1 15).

In Black Betty, when speaking to wealthy whites, Rawlins tells us that he "spoke in a dialect that they would expect. If I gave them what they expected then they wouldn't suspect me of being any kind of real threat" (72).

See also A Red Death: "On top of real estate Iwas in the business of doing favors. I'd do some- thing for somebody, like find a missing husband or figure out who's been breaking into so-and-so's store, and then maybe they could do me a good turn one day. It was a real country way of doing business. At that time almost everybody in my neighborhood had come from around southern Texas and Louisiana" (15). Rawlins remarks in Black Betty: "Most days, no matter what I was working on, I would have stopped and talked awhile. That's what made me different from the cops and from other people, black and white, trying to find out something down in black L.A. The people down there were country folks and they liked it when you stopped for a few minutes or so" (91).

See, however, Michael Mason's essay on "Marlowe, Men, Women," in which he discusses Chandler's homoerotic literary imagination.

As Michael Mason points out (91), in almost all of Chandler's novels the murderer is ultimately a woman.

Mosley offers a further comment on Naylor's idealism in Black Betty: The new, token black detective "Lewis wasn't anything like Quinten Naylor. Naylor was idealistic, believing that law was a virtue and that the police were the tools of good. If a cop went bad, Quinten hated him. But Lewis knew that the law is just the other side of the coin from crime, that they're both the same and inter- changeable. Criminals were just a bunch of thugs living off what honest people and rich people made. The cops were thugs too; paid by the owners of property to keep the other thugs down" (197).

Ed.'s Note: Presumably, this is the book that Black Classic Press published earlier this year as Gone Fishin'.

For what it is worth, Mosley, the child of a mixed racial marriage, could be seen as having an "ambivalent" racial heritage (see Goldner).

Interestingly, on the advice of a local black autodidact, Rawlins starts to read W. E. B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk near the end of White Buttefly (264).

Similarly, Black Betty's mixed race son Terry T can't disguise his white "half': "But there was always something about Terry. Maybe it was his buck teeth or the way he walked. It was as if he had the rhythm of a white man. A stride instead of a stalk in his gait" (93).

Babener, Liahna K. "Raymond Chandler's City of Lies." Fine 109-31. Works Chandler, Raymond. The Raymond Chandler Omnibus. New York: Modern Library, 1975 Cited "The Simple Art of Murder." Saturday Review of Literature 15 Apr. 1950: 13-14.

Christianson, Scott R. "A Heap of Broken Images: Hardboiled Detective Fiction and the Discourse(s) of Modernity." The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory. Ed. Ronald G. Walker, June M. Frazer, and David R. Anderson. Macomb: Western Illinois U, 1990. 135-48.

Clarke, Graham. " 'The Great Wrong Place': Los Angeles as Urban Milieu." The American City: Literary and Cultural Perspectives. Ed. Clarke. New York: St. Martin's, 1988. 124-45.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Verso, 1990.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Bantam, 1992.

Fine, David, ed. Los Angeles in Fiction: A Collection of Original Essays. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1984. Goldner, Diane. "Mystery Man of the Moment." USA Weekend 11-13 June 1993: 4. hooks, bell. "Reconstructing Black Masculinity." Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End P, 1992. 87-1 14.

Jameson, Fredric. "On Raymond Chandler." Southern Review 6.3 (1970): 624-50.

RACE, SEXUALITY, AND DISCOURSE IN THE L.A. NOVELS OF WALTER MOSLEY

Mason, Michael. "Marlowe, Men and Women." The World of Raymond Chandler. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1977.89-101. Mason, Theodore 0.Jr. "Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins: The Detective and Afro-American Fiction."

Kenyon Review 14.4(1992):173-83. McShane, Frank, ed. Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler. New York: Columbia UP, 1981. Miller, Christopher. Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP,

1992. Mosley, Walter. Black Betty. New York: Norton, 1994. --. "The Black Dick." Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing. Ed. Philomena Mariani.

Seattle: Bay P, 1991.131-33. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York: Pocket Books, 1990. A Red Death. New York: Norton, 1991.

--. White Butterfly. New York: Pocket Books, 1992. Porter, Dennis. The Pursuit of Crime: Arf and Ideology in Detective Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP,

1981.

Rabinowitz, Peter J. "Chandler Comes to Harlem: Racial Politics in the Thrillers of Chester Himes." The Sleuth and the Scholar Origins, Evolution, and Current Trends in Detective Fiction. Ed. Barbara A. Rader and Howard G. Zettler. Westport: Greenwood, 1988.19-29.

Reilly, John M. "Chester Himes' Harlem Tough Guys." Journal of Popular Culture 9.4(1976):935-47.

--. "The Politics of Tough Guy Mysteries." University of Dayton Review 10(1973):25-31.

announcement andyirst ~a@rTapersand creative~u6missions Southern Women Witers Con erence
2 atherinyj of~eadcrs,Writers, and choiars

%Ber~? Hount iBeruy, Georgia qd76.i-ig, igg8 2&

~o[~e

Featured speakers to include Thadious Davis (keynote speaker), Mary Hood, and Judith Ortiz Cofer.

The Southern Women Writers Con3renceis devoted to showcasing the writings of well-known and emerging southern women writers, expanding the literary canon, and developing critical and theoretical understandings of the tradition of southern women's writing.

The themefor the 2998 conference will be "Staking Claim to the South." Proposals for papers and panels should address ways in which southern women writers have expanded the canon of southern literature to include a diversity of perspectives and experiences, particularly those of groups marginalized by race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, and gender. To coincide with planned conference events, proposals exploring this theme as it appears in mystery novels by southern women writers are especially welcome.

Emerging Writers Contest:In an effort to encourage and promote new southern women writers, we will award $500 each for the best work of fiction and poetry by an emerging southern woman writer. The top three selections will be presented in readings at the conference. Fiction judge: Mary Hood. Poetry judge: Sandra Meek. Creative writers are encouraged to send for submission guidelines.

AJinal callJorpapers will be forthcoming in late summer/early fall. For more information contact: Emily Wright, Berry College English Department, P. 0. Box

495010, Mount Berry, Georgia 30149. Phone: (706) 233-4081. E-mail: swwc@berry.edu

Berry College is located near Rome, Ga., midway between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn.

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