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N/A Mosely's Mouse Barbara Leavy
 

     If there is any theme that runs throughout Walter Mosely's Easy [Ezekiel] Rawlins series, it is survival. This covers all kinds of survivals: physical, psychological, moral. But to survive, at least physically, Easy is dependent on what the editors of the series will call his lifelong friend, Raymond or Mouse, someone Easy calls the most dangerous man in the world, a person without a heart. Mouse can kill someone and go about his life without a qualm. Much of the conflict in Mosely's series is that Easy must also survive Mouse.

 

This is made the most clear in the first of the series, Devil in a Blue Dress, which tells how it is that Easy, a factory worker, becomes a private detective. Easy confronts several problems in the Watts area of Los Angeles just after WWII. A returning veteran who had manage to survive the war when many of his army buddies hadn't, he now has several other survival issues to face. He needs to survive the mean streets of Los Angeles's Watts district, which in later books would become meaner after Rodney King was killed and riots broke out. He needs to survive as a man in a white world in which he is more likely to be called boy. He needs to survive the racism of the notorious Los Angeles police with their brutal interrogation methods. He also needs to survive a white criminal world which is portrayed in this novel in terms of corrupt politics and sexual perversion—in this instant pedophilia. He needs ethically to survive in the sense of controlling his own instinctual life that, at one point, leads him to betray a good friend (Mouse) with the friend's wife.

      And he needs to survive what for him is an endangered future, an economic crisis has left him currently unemployed, and this may prevent him from paying the mortgage on a modest home and garden that represent for him the order and stability for which he longs. Easy's aspirations are clearly middle-class and his values are aligned with those aspirations. And finally, Easy tries to survive as a man of strong conscience in a world in which a conscience may be an impediment not an aid to survival. That is why he often needs Mouse, a man without conscience.

     In Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy Rawlins constantly comes up against dangers that threaten one way or the other his survival of one or more of has just been outlined. He makes wrong choices even though he knows better, and he sometimes gets mixed up with people his intuition signals are trouble. In the course of the novel, Easy describes his survival mechanism, an internal voice that speaks to him spontaneously and unbidden, a voice that Mosely does not identify as either instinct or conscience, what is commonly referred to as the Freudian id and superego. It is a voice that cannot be easily placed into either category, but one that reflects both.

     Easy describes how the voice comes to him when he is in a situation so bad that he is desperate. It can be understood as self-preservation. The voice gives him “the best advice” he ever gets. The voice, he says, 'is hard. It never cares if I am scared or in danger. It just looks at all the facts and tells me what I need to do.” When during the war he was trapped in a barn in Normandy and knows it is his life for that of the sniper who waits outside to kill him, the voice tells him to kill. “Kill him,” the voice directs him to kill his enemy with a bayonet, to rip off his face. “Even if he lets you live you be scared the rest'a yo' life.” Kill him, the voice directs and Easy says retrospectively, “And I did.” Later in the series, he will have nightmares over a young German whom he kills although his enemy is as young and frightened as he was.

      For his voice is not without some moral grounding. “The voice has no lust," Easy says. "He never told me to rape or steal. He just tells me how it is if I want to survive. Survive like a man. When the voice speaks, I listen." The problem is that it is not enough for him to listen to the voice, for it is always operating in conjunction with Easy's conscience, which is stronger than the voice, effectively limiting his sphere of action. What he needs is someone whose actions embody the voice minus its scruples. And this person is Easy's long-time companion, friend but also moral antagonist, Mouse, who name is both telling as an animal's voice and ironic in that the roar of his gun belies his diminutive size.

 

At some point, Easy recognizes how important it is for him to distance himself from Mouse, and he leaves Houston to get away from him. What drives him away is his horror that Mouse had without any qualm killed his stepfather and another man who stood in the way of something Mouse wanted. Reminiscing about their past, Easy muses that Mouse never feels “bad about anything he'd done.” He hadn't confessed these murders; rather he was telling his story. (Mouse as storyteller will show up again in the series, especially Cinnamon Kiss.) He always told at least one person about something important he had done in his life. “And once he told me he gave me three hundred dollars so he would know I thought he had done right.”

 

This is a curious contradiction. On one hand, Mouse never thinks he has done wrong, no matter what act he has committed. On the other, he needs to be validated by Easy in a dialectic that will admit of no alteration or progress to any other stage in their relationship. Easy thinks how wrong it was of him to take the money. “But my best friend would have put a bullet in my head if he ever thought that I was unsure of him. He would have seen me as an enemy, killed me for my lack of faith.” On some level, Easy and Mouse are inextricably bound to each other, each needing something the other could give, although it is only Easy who understands this need. Or if Mouse recognizes their mutual dependence, he has chosen to excise or perhaps exorcise it from his consciousness. In a back story, Goin' Fishing, Easy and Mouse are young men whose paths will diverge, Easy developing more moral concerns, Mouse fewer (if he ever had any). More than once Mosely has Easy describing Mouse as someone who has no heart or who has a black heart [check text to see if “black” is Mosely's word—I think it is.] Easy becomes ill with the flu and, feverish, he is cold. Throughout the night, Mouse holds him, his own body heat warming Easy as best as he could. And, remembers Easy, this is what his friend with a black heart had done for him.

 

At this point, it is useful to recognize that Mosely has written a complex novel as well as a page-turner, a mystery. In addition to its plot and well-drawn characters and setting, Mosely has employed another “language,” expressed through his images. The world of Devil in a Blue Dress is divided symbolically between two retail businesses described in the novel. One of these is a meat market, above which is the bar that Easy frequents, where he gets his first job as a private investigator. The image of the world as a slaughterhouse, filled with animals who have been killed, needs little comment, and Mosely offers little. War, crime, betrayal, a struggle for survival—these are what reduces human beings to their essence as animals, sharing with beasts their most elemental instincts.

  

At some point, Easy recognizes how important it is for him to distance himself from Mouse, and he leaves Houston to get away from him. What drives him away is his horror that Mouse had without any qualm killed his stepfather and another man who stood in the way of something Mouse wanted. Reminiscing about their past, Easy muses that Mouse never feels “bad about anything he'd done.” He hadn't confessed these murders; rather he was telling his story. (Mouse as storyteller will show up again in the series, especially Cinnamon Kiss.) He always told at least one person about something important he had done in his life. “And once he told me he gave me three hundred dollars so he would know I thought he had done right.”

 

This is a curious contradiction. On one hand, Mouse never thinks he has done wrong, no matter what act he has committed. On the other, he needs to be validated by Easy in a dialectic that will admit of no alteration or progress to any other stage in their relationship. Easy thinks how wrong it was of him to take the money. “But my best friend would have put a bullet in my head if he ever thought that I was unsure of him. He would have seen me as an enemy, killed me for my lack of faith.” On some level, Easy and Mouse are inextricably bound to each other, each needing something the other could give, although it is only Easy who understands this need. Or if Mouse recognizes their mutual dependence, he has chosen to excise or perhaps exorcise it from his consciousness. In a back story, Goin' Fishing, Easy and Mouse are young men whose paths will diverge, Easy developing more moral concerns, Mouse fewer (if he ever had any). More than once Mosely has Easy describing Mouse as someone who has no heart or who has a black heart [check text to see if “black” is Mosely's word—I think it is.] Easy becomes ill with the flu and, feverish, he is cold. Throughout the night, Mouse holds him, his own body heat warming Easy as best as he could. And, remembers Easy, this is what his friend with a black heart had done for him.

 

At this point, it is useful to recognize that Mosely has written a complex novel as well as a page-turner, a mystery. In addition to its plot and well-drawn characters and setting, Mosely has employed another “language,” expressed through his images. The world of Devil in a Blue Dress is divided

symbolically between two retail businesses described in the novel. One of these is a meat market, above which is the bar that Easy frequents, where he gets his first job as a private investigator. The image of the world as a slaughterhouse, filled with animals who have been killed, needs little comment, and Mosely offers little. War, crime, betrayal, a struggle for survival—these are what reduces human beings to their essence as animals, sharing with beasts their most elemental instincts.

 

The other business is quite different, a barbershop so well-run that an intoxicated person is barred from entering it. In terms of a nature-culture dichotomy (animal vs. socialized human), it is difficult not to understand a barber shop, whose business involves shaving and hair-cuts. But through Easy, Mosely notes that “you had to be tough to be a barber because your place was the center of business for a certain element in the community.” That element involved gamblers, numbers runners and other private “businessmen” who met there. The barbershop was thus a microcosm of society, as well as a social club (social suggesting a set of rules that had to predominate). “And any social club had to have order to move smoothly.”

 

The barbershop as symbolic society is vulnerable to disorder as is society in general, especially if what are referred to as “certain elements” are not necessarily easily recognized, appearing in the guise of respectable, certainly powerful citizens. So how does one keep order in the barbershop? Easy explains, “One nice thing about barbers is that they have a dozen straight razors that they will use to keep order in their shops.

 

For many of Mosely's readers, likely to be well-versed in crime fiction, a straight-edged razor is likely to have other literary associations, going back to what some claim is the first detective story that depends on deduction on the part of the investigator, Edgar Alan Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue, in which a murderer is not a human being but an ape. Did Mosely recognize this possible association? It is hard to prove and raises many questions. Especially since there remains a persistent association between black people and apes, the people somehow stuck in some kind of evolutionary dead end, not advancing from their animal selves to full human beings. But a close reading of the Poe story and Devil in a Blue Dress involves so many intersecting  themes that it is worth pursuing the image of the straight-edged razor..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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