The novel opens in Los Angeles in the year 1948. Easy Rawlins is surprised when DeWitt Albright, a large and imposing white man, walks into Joppy's bar. Its smell and dingy atmosphere usually keeps white folks away. Everything about Mr. Alright is white, from his skin to nearly every item of his clothing. Yet Easy tells us that he is accustomed to being in white company because he fought in World War II in Africa, Italy, Paris, and Germany. He explains: "I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was." Mr. Albright seems to have a good deal of sway even over Joppy himself, who acts nervous around him. He reminds Easy of a man he used to know named Mouse, which makes him very uneasy. They call Easy over and Mr. Albright proposes over drinks that Easy work for him. Mr. Albright does undercover favors for people and he wants Easy to help him on his next job. Easy is not keen on helping Mr. Albright, but he has been fired from his job at Champion aircraft and is trying to pay off a mortgage. Mr. Albright asks Easy to meet him at another location to discuss the details of the job. He writes down the address on his fancy business card with a elegant, white pen. Easy remarks that Joppy did not protest when Mr. DeWitt left without paying for his drinks.
Easy discovers that Joppy met Mr. Albright before the war, when he was still a boxer. We also find out that Joppy's prized possession is his marble bar top, which he brought from his late uncle's bar in Houston. Joppy calms Easy's suspicions about Mr. Albright by telling him that he is a shady business man, not a gangster. As Joppy puts it, "Wherever they's a little money to be made Mr. Albright got his nose to the ground ... An' he don't care too much if that money got a little smudge or sumpin' on it neither." Easy is jealous of the stability and success of Joppy's life, even if it lacks glamour. Easy's instincts tell him to distrust Mr. Albright. Still, Easy is interested and thanks Joppy for the opportunity, but wonders if he will still be thankful later.
The major themes of race and war come up in Mosley's first two short chapters of Devil in a Blue Dress. The book's first sentence sets racial tensions in play. The novel is set in post-World-War-II Los Angeles, before the Civil Rights Movement, so Mosley includes markers of segregation and cultural alienation in his narrative. Moreover, Mosley uses the novel as a vehicle through which to explore the implications of race and racial prejudice.
Easy notices not simply that Mr. Albright is white, but that every detail about him is white to the point of being sterile and false. He continues: "It's not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks." Mr. Albright seems especially white in Joppy's dark, dingy, black-populated bar. Even though Mr. Albright reminds Easy of his black friend, Mouse, the white character comes to represent the power whites have over blacks in Easy's society. He likes to be in control of others and give them orders. On the other hand, Joppy explains that Mr. Albright is an opportunist who makes money anywhere he can.
Mosley connects race to the theme of war in the first two chapters. Easy remembers the eyes of German soldiers whom he killed in combat when he served in World War II. When he killed white Germans, he had control over white men instead of the other way around. Meeting Mr. Albright makes Easy think about the Germans he killed almost as a defense mechanism. Faced with a conspicuously sinister and big-talking white man who wants to take advantage of him, he recalls a time when he was the one in control. By doing so, Easy expresses a common frustration of black soldiers who returned to their Southern communities after World War II. Having felt heroic and fighting for their country, they found themselves second-class citizens once again.
Because he is conscious of his second-class status as a black man, Easy is especially proud of being a homeowner. Throughout the novel, he speaks lovingly about his humble house and garden. In fact, his pride in his home is what motivates him to get mixed up in Mr. Albright's shady affair -- Easy needs to pay the mortgage. Easy's desire for stability makes him jealous of even Joppy, a solitary and somber person with property and a stable job. Easy's independence simultaneously gets him into and out of trouble throughout Devil in a Blue Dress.