Hard-boiled Histories:
Walter Mosley’s Revisionary Eye

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2003, Volume 2, Issue 2

Phillip Novak
Le Moyne College

I want to begin by situating Mosley's work within the context of an ongoing effort on the part of contemporary African-American novelists to engage both American history and American historiography. The terrain here is fairly well known—both in general terms, and in relation to the particular writers whose works constitute that effort: Alice Walker, Ishmael Reed, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Gayle Jones, Toni Cade Bambara. The list is partial, to be sure. But it does serve to indicate, by way of elliptical allusion, oblique evocation, the extent to which recent African-American narrative is preoccupied with the past, and with the processes involved in historical transmission. These writers figure history differently, of course. Their interests and attitudes vary widely. But their work is grounded in at least two shared assumptions—which I want to underscore here because they bear on Mosley's work with, and within, the genre of detective fiction.

The first of these assumptions is simply that African-American experience has yet to be adequately represented. Such inadequacy takes two principal forms. First, because of the circumstances surrounding the introduction of what Morrison has termed the "Africanist presence" on the American continent (see e.g. Morrison 5)—because African peoples, in other words, were violently torn from the cultures that sustained them and then subjected to systematic efforts to sever their ties with their cultural pasts—there are real gaps in the historical record. Individual histories, as well as cultural traditions, have been irretrievably lost.

Second, because, until fairly recently, the cultural climate in America has not been especially encouraging to African-American novelists, poets, playwrights, artists, and film makers, and because—again, until fairly recently—serious, sustained attention has been denied to Africanist literary and artistic expression—African-American cultural experience has tended to remain at the margins of America's collective consciousness. The issue is complex, of course, for African-Americans have always played a significant role in American popular culture. But the significance of that contribution has itself remained a bit submerged—in part because the formal innovations of African-American artists have often been mediated to the general public—made popular—by white performers, and in part because the importance of popular culture has not always been recognized. And the issues, as a result, have to some extent remained unexamined, unexpressed—buried in the political unconscious. My point here is only that much recent African-American fiction is designed to address these inadequacies, to write African-American experience into both history and public consciousness—the popular imagination. The point bears, I think, on Mosley's choice of the detective novel as the site of what I want to describe as a kind of political intervention.

The second assumption underwriting African-American narrative's current engagement with history is the notion that critical reflection on America's social and cultural past has been dominated by—written from—a white perspective, that American historiography encodes a white mythology. This, too, is fairly familiar terrain: The dominant culture, privileging its position, posits the existence of an American identity that somehow transcends racial difference. From this perspective, American history is, paradoxically enough, the history of the transcendental subject constituting for itself on the fertile soil of the American continent a context in which it can free itself, precisely, from the constraints of history. Contemporary African-American narrative regularly takes the universalizing, essentially ahistoricizing, aspects of this kind of white mythography as a point of reference, a point of departure, a point of resistance. Their works are pitched against a mode of historical understanding that would deny that race matters.

This ultimately, is where and how I want to place Mosley's work, which can, I want to suggest, best be characterized as a kind of textual insurgency—not only because detective fiction is pretty well marked in the public imagination as white terrain, but because the texts that we tend to see as establishing the generic conventions—the hard-boiled detective novels of the 20s, 30s, and 40s—mark themselves as a universalizing—that is, white—discourse. This is the point that I now wish to take up.

It is a commonplace of the criticism of hard-boiled detective novels that the primary aim of such fiction is to define a milieu—to bring the reader into contact with the gritty textures of a concretely imagined, peculiarly inflected, world—and to establish a perspective, by means of the cynical detective figure, from which to observe that world (see e.g. Cawelti 14). Unlike earlier detective stories, that is, hard-boiled fiction is not much concerned with epistemology, or with the processes of intellection, or even with the work of detection as a means of generating suspense. Although Chandler's and Hammett's novels revolve around the work of the detective, nothing much hinges in these novels on the processes involved in that work. Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade never really discover in the course of their investigations anything essential they do not already know: that people on the whole are driven by their passions; that women are fascinating, but generally treacherous, essentially unknowable, and probably dangerous; that the police are paid stiffs who never get it right. The detective's work in these novels, then, is chiefly of interest because it serves to connect the detective hero with the seamy underworld, which serves in turn as a figure for what these novels take to be the reality of human experience. The detective is at once the embodiment and the master of this world, both immersed and cynically detached. And his work functions mainly as a means of marking that immersion and that detachment. There is a well-known (at this point, perhaps even shop-worn) passage from Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder" that speaks directly to these issues:

The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities . . . and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket . . . where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing.

It is not a very fragrant world . . . But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. . . . The story is his adventure . . . and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. (991)

Again, the two points of emphasis here are the detective’s milieu and his way of being in it. And the novels are largely designed to ratify the detective’s position. As the passage makes plain, the hard-boiled hero is essentially a moral man—a “man of honor” in Chandler’s terms—living in an immoral world, and trying to fashion for himself, out of the lineaments of his experience, a code of conduct that will allow him to live with himself. He is an adept, in the Hemingway sense, and his ability—an ability, mainly, to deal with violence—marks him off from the common herd. As does his occult knowledge of the world’s basic seaminess that he has gained from his work.

That work is important to the detective hero—largely because it allows him to move through his fallen world with a measure of freedom. He is his own boss, and therefore unencumbered by a potentially compromising dependency. Generally, in these novels, he is less interested in making money than in satisfying his own curiosity, or his own sense of justice. His relative poverty, in fact, functions as a sign of his moral independence, his freedom from the corruption that surrounds him.

The world the detective inhabits—as, again, the Chandler passage makes clear—is a world structured by corruption. Those who are evil and morally weak are in control precisely because they are evil and morally weak. But their power protects them, makes it possible for them to construct for themselves a façade of respectability. The duplicity is intrinsic—and it poses a more or less constant threat to the detective’s ability to function as moral agent.

The central point I wish to make here is that neither the milieu imagined by the writers of hard-boiled fiction, nor the detective’s response to that milieu, is presented as being marked—with any precision or any depth—by history. The milieu is recognizably—perhaps even stridently—modern, of course. But it is a modernity that effectively stretches out to the temporal horizons. Scattered allusions to the laws governing the sale and consumption of alcohol notwithstanding, these texts rarely make reference to determinate historical events—or, more importantly, to determinate historical forces. The world they envision is corrupt, but the corruption is grounded, not in history, but in what the narratives take to be universal human desires and failings. In this sense, the contemporary setting is largely coincidental. To the extent that the narratives are interested in the past, they are interested in it as a psychological—not a historical—issue. Individuals, even families, may be haunted by the past. But the society, the culture as a whole, remains pretty much unmarked by the passage of time. If the world of the hard-boiled detective is modern, in short, it is modern the way T. S. Eliot’s wasteland is modern—by which I mean mainly that it is indeterminately postlapsarian. And such modernity, again, really has no boundaries.

The detective hero’s response to his world is similarly ungrounded. It has nothing to do, that is, with the detective’s historical—or, in the current parlance, his subject—positioning. Or, to put the point a bit differently, subject positioning is precisely what both the novels and their heroes present themselves as fighting against. What they seek is a subjectivity which transcends the particulars of time and place, and which—like the novels’ modernity—is infinitely extendable. The detective is not like other people—but only because they have not seen what he has seen, or because, having seen it, they have succumbed. Those who people the detective’s world are either naïve or corrupt—and the fact that he is neither is what makes him special. His vision of the world, his manner of relating is, however, transferable. Indeed, the aim of these texts, as I suggested earlier, is to promote that vision, to elaborate an attitude toward the world and to make that attitude available for imaginative appropriation—a point made explicit in an often-cited episode in The Maltese Falcon.

In this episode, which presents itself as a set piece, Sam Spade relates to Brigid O’Shaughnessy the story of Flitcraft. Boiled down—or, I suppose inevitably, hard-boiled down—the story is as follows. A man named Flitcraft is living a humdrum bourgeois existence as an investor in real estate. He is married, prosperous—but too un-self-reflective to be either happy or discontented. Then, as Spade tells it:

Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up. . . . A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. (63)

The experience somehow alters Flitcraft’s relation to the world, and he immediately abandons wife and children, wanders for a while, and eventually settles back into a life much like the one he left. Spade comments: “`I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of. . . . But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling’” (63-64).

The precise meaning of the episode seems to me muddled—since it insists equally on the transformative quality of Flitcraft’s experience and on the fact that he learns nothing from that experience. But what interests me in the episode is the way it serves to model the functions of narrative, which it imagines as existential parable. 1 And this, ultimately, is how the hard-boiled detective novels offer themselves to the reader, as existential parables. As is almost invariably the case with such parables, the reader is not just assumed to be—but is actively constructed as—white and male, limited only by the generalizable conditions of existence—the destiny determined by character playing itself out against the turnings of chance. The work of these texts is, precisely, the construction of such a subject. For them, I think, no other form of subjectivity is even imaginable.

I eventually want to oppose Mosley’s work to the universalizing strains of such a discourse. But I first want to indicate the extent to which that work situates itself within the conventions established by writers like Chandler and Hammett—in order to make clear that the form of opposition involved here is a kind of guerilla warfare, a fighting from the inside. When we are first introduced to the world of Easy Rawlins—in the opening pages of Devil in a Blue Dress—it strikes in some ways as exceedingly familiar discursive space: a low-rent bar running illegal hooch, owned and operated by an oversized ex-boxer with fists the size of catchers’ mits, and peopled—at least at the moment the novel opens—by an evil-looking, and undoubtedly gun-toting, gangster in a flashy suit. There is no mistaking the terrain, or the atmosphere, which is pure, almost caricatural, noir: the atmosphere of hard-boiled fiction. And though Mosley will, during the course of the series, take us well out of the historical moment associated with the genre, the hard-boiled atmosphere will linger. Despite the clear historical shifts marked by each novel, in other words, the world Rawlins inhabits will remain in significant ways, like the world Spade and Marlowe defined and dominated—a world marked by the tyranny of evil men. Such tyranny is represented most clearly at the outset by the figure of DeWitt Albright—the gangster in the flashy suit—who is able to conduct his nefarious business with relative impunity, not only because he fears nothing and kills without remorse, but because the social system allows it, because institutions of protection and control are simply failing to do the work they are designed to accomplish. As is the case with the earlier novels, it is precisely this climate of systemic, social failure that gives rise to the work of the private detective, that necessitates his intervention and motivates both his quest for justice and his morally ambiguous involvement in the underworld. “Somewhere along the line,” Rawlins tells us in White Butterfly, “I 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).

Like his forebears, Rawlins is essentially a good man, a man of conscience. We are repeatedly reminded, for example, that he has a reputation not only for integrity but for generosity of spirit, a willingness to put himself on the line for others, and the novels chart innumerable acts of quiet kindness. And although he is not always able to save those he most wants to protect, he does regularly salvage lives. Were it not for his skill, of course, Rawlins would be in a position to help no one—so, like Spade and Marlowe, he is marked as an adept. Resourceful and courageous, he is good with his fists and good with a gun. And he moves through his world with more freedom than most—a freedom that derives, the novels make clear, from his position as private detective. At the beginning of Devil in a Blue Dress, for example, Rawlins confronts a crisis created by dependency, since he has just been fired from his job. The first hundred dollars he makes as a private eye effectively frees him from that dependency, a point made explicit when Rawlins eventually challenges the man who fired him: “My chest was heaving and I felt as if I wanted to laugh out loud,” Easy notes as he walks away from the exchange. “My bills were paid and it felt good to have stood up for myself. I had a notion of freedom when I walked out to my car” (67). Still later in the novel, he notes, “It was as if for the first time in my life I was doing something on my own terms. Nobody was telling me what to do” (124). Such freedom sets Rawlins apart from those who surround him.

As is the case with Spade and Marlowe, however, the attribute that most defines Rawlins as a character is his occult knowledge of violence. Easy can, of course, refrain from reacting violently—his sense of shared guilt prevents him from killing his turncoat employee Mofass, for example. And it is clearly this restraint, this ability to identify with potential adversaries that separates him from his friend Mouse, that marks him as a man of conscience—that aligns him so particularly, in short, with Spade and Marlowe. But like them, Easy has seen a good deal of violence. And like them he knows how to take it and how to dish it out. What separates him from his predecessors, however—and here I can perhaps begin to sketch out some of the ways Mosley is reworking his material—is that Easy’s knowledge of violence is very specifically placed in terms of historical moment and social circumstance. Spade and Marlowe, that is, seem to come to their awareness of, and ability to deal with, violence as a sort of birthright—a consequence, again, of natural gifts unfolding in response to the seamy reality of lived experience. Easy’s understanding of violence, by contrast, is explicitly presented as arising from an engagement with history—his service in the army during World War II—and as related to his position within the postwar social structure.

It is during the war, we are told in Devil in a Blue Dress that Easy first makes contact with the internal voice—the hard-boiled kernel within him, so to speak—which ends up serving as a guide at all future moments of difficulty:

It was outside Normandy, near a little farm, when the voice first came to me. I was trapped in the barn. My two buddies . . . were dead and a sniper had the place covered. The voice told me to “get off yo’ butt when the sun comes down an’ kill that motherfucker. . . . You cain’t let him do that to you. Even if he lets you live you be scared the rest’a yo’ life.’ . . . The voice has no lust. . . . He just tells me how it is if I want to survive. (99)

If Easy is in some sense peculiarly well fitted, by a hard-bitten, brutal resourcefulness, to the dangerous work of private investigation, such resourcefulness is a gift not of nature but of historical positioning. To the extent that it is presented as arising from within, as having something to do with Easy’s sense of self, that self is defined, by dialect and diction, in explicitly racial terms. Easy, that is, discovers a gift for survival at a concretely defined historical moment, but that gift is itself grounded in the broader history of African-American experience, which the novels depict as a literal fight for survival in the context of systematic social oppression.

Facing constant resistance in the form of limited opportunity, surviving under threat in a hostile environment, African-Americans, Mosley suggests, are placed, not by necessity but by American social custom and practice, in a hard bitten, hard-boiled milieu. In this context, survival depends upon developing a kind of edgy resourcefulness. And it is this resourcefulness, this survivor’s sensibility, that Easy comes to embody. If he is cynical, it is because he has seen too many lives ruined by racism. If he is not always able to act as his conscience dictates, it is because he—like most of the members of his community—is hemmed in by an enforced powerlessness, and by official corruption. If he disdains authority, it is because positions of authority are conferred in the culture, not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of racial privilege. Like Spade and Marlowe, for example, Easy hates the police. But he hates them, not because they are necessarily—always and everywhere—evil, but because, in his experience, they too often use their power to exploit and punish black people. They are eager to beat confessions out of innocent black men, and just as eager to walk away from crime when the victim is black.

This sort of turn is ultimately what I am trying to get at when I refer to Mosley’s revisionary eye. He finds in the modus vivendi exemplified by the hard-boiled detective an effective means of figuring a specifically defined historical experience. By so doing, he transforms our understanding of literary history, lays bare the ideological assumptions underwriting the tradition within which he works—and manages in the process to make public, to make more available to the popular imagination, a cultural experience that has historically been consigned to the margins.

There are other forms of revision undertaken by the novels, of course, many revolving around the figure of the femme fatale, whose ambiguity—like the detective’s cynicism—is translated out of the realm of the existential and grounded in the complexities of race. This is most obviously the case with Ruby Hanks--a.k.a. Daphne Monet—whose characterological instability is linked explicitly with her mixed racial heritage. Both white and black, she defies categorization in a culture that demands it—and inevitably suffers the consequences. Unlike the dangerous women of previous hard-boiled fiction, she is clearly more victimized than victimizing. And her troubles are just as clearly rooted in history.

The novels thus insist on the value of historical understanding. And both America’s history generally, and the history of African-Americans specifically, are inscribed in these texts in a multiplicity of ways: in sketches of the black soldier’s experiences in the Second World War and of the black veteran’s often vulnerable participation in the postwar economic boom, in references to the red baiting of the 50s and the hopefulness attending the budding Civil Rights movement of the early 60s, in a constant refrain of references to historical figures, in the earned wisdom of retrospective narration. As I suggested earlier, the novels of the 20s, 30s, and 40s lack this kind of historical specificity and this kind of historicizing sensibility. Such difference, I want finally to suggest, matters a good deal—because it offers the possibility of, perhaps lays the groundwork for, historical transformation—by which I mean mainly real social change.


1. Cawelti, in his seminal work on detective fiction, makes special mention of this passage. Like me, he sees the meaning of the anecdote as ambiguous, an ambiguity he sees as extending to the novel as a whole: “[T]he moral of both stories—that of Flitcraft and of Sam Spade—is more than a little ambiguous. It is true that Flitcraft and Spade manage to survive the falling beam, but for what? Flitcraft goes back to the same respectable middle-class life that he had so suddenly awakened from; Spade returns to his shabby office, having sent the woman he loves off to prison” (167). Because Cawelti then goes on to reject the label existentialist parable for Spade’s anecdote, it seems to me useful to underscore that I refer to the Flitcraft story—and ultimately the novel as a whole—as an existential, not existentialist, parable. Cawelti is using the term existentialist in a more-or-less rigorous philosophical sense. He resists seeing the anecdote as an existentialist parable because, as he puts it, “the existentialist believes that recognizing the irrationality and absurdity of the universe can be a prelude to new depth” and that does not happen, Cawelti claims, in the case of either Flitcraft or Spade (168). When I refer to the anecdote and the novel as existential parables, I use the term existential in a non-rigorous sense, as a standard adjective—as having to do with human existence as such. Spade, that is, seems to think of Flitcraft as an example, someone from whom we can all (all here signifying, in keeping with the bias of the novel, white men) learn a lesson. The implication of Hammett’s narrative throughout is that Spade’s story can render the same service for the reader. These are points that Cawelti clearly concedes at the conclusion of his discussion of the Flitcraft episode, when he notes that “the Flitcraft parable” seems opposed to the existentialist belief that “man can pass beyond despair to a freely chosen moral responsibility that gives meaning to an otherwise ridiculous and empty existence” (168). What the novel seems to teach, he argues, is that “Only a rejection of all emotional and moral ties can help man survive in a treacherous world” (169). There are lessons to be drawn here—just very grim ones.

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Works Cited

Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978.

Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” Raymond Chandler: Later Novels and Other Writings. New York: Library of America, 1995. 977-92.

Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Random House, 1992.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Mosley, Walter. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1990.

--. White Butterfly. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1992.

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© 2003 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture