Easy encounters sexual perversity several times during his encounters with Matthew Teran, Daphne Monet, and Richard McGee. Mosley heightens our sense of Teran's perversity by showing how it has leeched from his personality into his appearance and surroundings. One can tell at first glance - or like Easy, at first scent - that Teran is physically and morally filthy. Easy writes, "The moment the [car] door shut I gagged on the odors. The smells were sweet like perfume and sour, an odor of the body I recognized but could put no name to." To match his revolting surroundings, Teran himself is associated with images of the violent and grotesque. Easy remembers that his lips were like "swollen wounds." Correspondingly, his "little man," as he terms his young Mexican sex slave, is filthy to match the moral depravity around him. Easy writes, "He was wearing soiled briefs and dirty white socks ... Thick mucus threatened to flow from the boy's nose." There is a sense, in Teran's sick world, of normal things gone awry and being taken too far. A man caring for a child has turned into a man abusing a child. Symbolically, the normal functions of the body are overflowing. Teran wallows happily in his perversity as though it is natural. Like Daphne Monet, he has become so accustomed to his warped views of sex and love that he is unashamed of expressing them in front of a stranger. Because of his moral compass, Easy finds Teran revolting. He even refuses money from Teran because, he recalls, "I didn't want to touch anything that that man had touched."
Daphne Monet has experienced the opposite side of pedophilia, compounded with an element of incest. She tells Easy about how her father molested her when she was fourteen. After witnessing the unbridled, wild mating of zebras, Daphne's father began a year-long cycle of abuse that ended only when Frank murdered him in retribution. Daphne has several responses to her own sense of sexual perversity. The first is to be especially bold and even violent in her lovemaking. Before she flees the scene of Richard's murder, she kisses Easy so violently that she chips his tooth. After she and Easy have sex, she tells him that she likes making his penis hurt. Daphne's sexual behavior rings with a wish for revenge on her father. Daphne's history of suffering from pedophilia and incest drive her to opposite extremes. She becomes involved with Richard McGee, who is a pimp and trafficker of children. Then she kills Matthew Teran because he acts so perversely and saves the little boy he has been abusing.
Mosley uses sexual perversity as an earmark of society's corruption as a whole. In Easy's world, seemingly upright people such as Matthew Teran, candidate for mayor, and Richard McGee are in fact involved in the grotesque and criminal realm of pedophilia. That powerful and influential characters perpetuate sexual perversity informs us that no corner of Easy's society is free from corruption and foulness. Indeed, the highest levels of power often correspond to the lowest levels of morality.
Mosley uses animal symbolism to give us insight into characters' personalities. He uses several different animal images to define moments in Easy's character arc. The first is the jay perched on the fence, which tantalizes the neighbor's vicious dog. Easy sees himself in the bird; he has all the means to fly - to achieve the independence and joy to which he aspires - but finds himself both paralyzed and mesmerized by the thrills of crime, mystery, and danger. While he waits in the interrogation room at the police station, Easy finds himself drawn to the dead mouse in the corner. At first, he sees himself as the mouse, cornered by the catlike Miller and Mason. When Easy regains his sense of pride and thirst for justice, he imagines that the mouse is Mason, whom he "crush[es] so that his whole suit [is] soiled and shapeless in the corner; his eyes [come] out of his head." Easy again puts himself in relation to an animal in his dream about the catfish. The catfish, which is larger-than-life, represents the big dreams Easy has of being a homeowner and a professional success. He has hooked the catfish just as he has taken the first steps in getting what he wants. Yet the catfish eludes him, just as his dream of financial security does as well, until the end of the novel.
Mouse's very name defines his animalistic personality. Mouse is physically small like his namesake. He is also a creature of instinct, like a wild animal. He will kill at the slightest provocation and turn even on his best friends, as Easy continually reminds us. Mouse's name is also ironic because unlike his namesake, he is far from shy and quiet. As we see when he beats Frank Green and murders Joppy, he likes to see his enemies suffer - more like a cat than a mouse.
Daphne Monet is another major character whose personality Mosley defines by using animal symbolism. Daphne herself is a "chameleon." Having been hurt to the point of trusting no one, she develops a survival strategy of changing herself in order to take advantage of a given situation. Her eyes represent her chameleon-like personality as they change from blue to green unpredictably. Daphne defines her experiences of racism and sexual abuse in animal terms. Like the caged ape, she feels trapped between white and black worlds, belonging nowhere and subject to ridicule from all sides. Like a zebra, she is neither black nor white, forcing her to become a chameleon. Even though Daphne says she forgives her father for raping her, her true feelings of desperation surface when she describes the mating zebras. The male dominates the female completely, and Daphne feels similarly controlled by her father and the other men in her life. She is unable to find her true self because she feels "caged" and dominated. Accordingly, Daphne's animal instinct is what makes her a loner like Mouse. She leaves one man after another without remorse, unable to give herself over to the most human of emotions - love.
Race and racism are the novel's core issues. In 1948, when the novel is set, the United States is still legally divided into 'black and white.' Communities are segregated and blatant racism abounds. Easy experiences this firsthand during his encounters with white men including Mr. Albright, Mr. Carter, and Mason and Miller. In the very first moment of the book, Easy defines himself as black against the stunningly white image of Mr. Albright. He is "surprised to see a white man walk in to Joppy's bar," but moreover by Mr. Albright's completely white ensemble, down to his gleaming and insincere smile. Easy quickly connects the issue to race to his experiences during World War II. He remembers, "I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was." Thus Easy's experience of race in the army goes beyond feeling put down by the army's segregation: he connects the issue of race to the "blue-eyed" Nazis and their mission of achieving an Aryan society. Easy's constant racial references to World War II suggest that the segregation present in America during his time is linked to Hitler's Third Reich.
The teenage boys try to degrade Easy by calling him "nigger." Mr. Albright, like many white men in his time, calls Easy "boy" in order to express racial superiority. But expressions of racism go beyond language in Devil in a Blue Dress. Mr. Carter subjects Easy to "the worst type of racism" by treating him like an equal. Easy explains that by failing to recognize the racial difference between them, Mr. Carter acts as though Easy is lower than a human being. Moreover, Easy's experiences with the police typify interaction between the black and white communities. Mason and Miller take pleasure in humiliating the men they capture because it is their way of expressing their racial superiority. Easy explains in Chapter 22 that the police do not care about crime in the black community unless white people are the victims. He asserts: "The paper hardly ever even reported a colored murder. And when they did it was way in the back pages ... To kill a white man was a real crime." Mason and Miller want to pin Easy as a stereotypical, violent and animalistic Negro. But this racism is not exclusive to white men's thoughts. Mouse wishes that Easy would own up to this stereotype, which is what he sees as the "poor nigger['s]" destiny.
As we have seen, Mosley acknowledges the 'black and white' impression of post-World-War-II Los Angeles as defined by the government and the white community. Yet he uses the novel in order to shatter notions that race and racism are clear-cut. One example of this is Easy's interaction with his former boss, Benny. Benny is a first-generation Italian-American, and according to Easy he is darker than many mixed-race blacks he knows. But Benny feels superior to Easy because for all intents and purposes, he is white and Easy is black. Through Easy's relationship with Benny, Mosley suggests that race is not simply a matter of skin color. He fleshes out this point with the character of Daphne, who is "colored" despite looking completely white. Daphne's skin color makes her feel as though she does not belong in the black community. But her cultural background alienates her from the white community. Race is such a strong measure of identity that Daphne feels lost as a person without it. Even Easy is shocked to the core when he discovers that Daphne is black. He remembers, "I had only been in an earthquake once but the feeling was the same: The ground under me seemed to shift. I looked at her to see the truth. But it wasn't there. Her nose, cheeks, her skin color - they were white. Daphne was a white woman."
Even though racism is largely a dividing force in the novel, it also brings characters together. Easy feels a kinship with Primo, who is Mexican, simply because both are subjected to racism from the white community. They understand each other because "a Mexican and a Negro [consider] themselves the same. That is to say, just another couple of unlucky stiffs holding the short end of the stick." In the same vein, Easy feels connected to Abe and Johnny because they, as Jews and Holocaust survivors, are perhaps even more familiar with racism than he. He tells the reader, "In Europe the Jew had been a Negro for more than a thousand years." Such a multifaceted examination of race is not surprising coming from Mosley, who has heritage in both the black and Jewish communities. Mosley understands what it is to be discriminated against as an African-American, as a Jew, and as a person of mixed race. Perhaps it is because of this that his perspective on racial issues is so trenchant and complicated.
Money is the primary source of power in Devil in a Blue Dress. Daphne Monet is able to command so much respect and attention because she has stolen thirty-thousand dollars. Her name makes her seem French and romantic as well as of a higher class - as a reference to the impressionist painter Claude Monet. But more than those things, Daphne's last name is synonymous with "Money." (In fact, on the novel's back cover, her name is actually misspelled as "Money.") The novel revolves around finding Daphne Monet - that is, finding money. Mr. Carter is a meek man who needs Daphne to comfort and stand up for him like a mother. But he has so much money that he can flatten even a seemingly unstoppable character like Mr. Albright by using his money. He offers Easy enough money to keep him involved in the mystery and can simply fire Mr. Albright. What he lacks in confidence and strength he makes up for in currency.
Money is the driving force behind each and every character's behavior. Even when events seem motivated by other factors, one may trace them back to the core issue of financial aspiration. Joppy explains that Mr. Albright will get involved in most any business as long as the money is good. He says, "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."
When the novel begins, Easy is focused on creating a life of stability and predictability. Having risked his life as a soldier and returned to the segregated South, he longs more than anything to have property of his own. As he becomes more wrapped up in the mystery, Easy develops a genuine love for adventure that inspires him to become a private investigator by the end of the novel. Yet initially, he just needs money because he has been laid off from Champion. All of Easy's actions after he agrees to work with Mr. Albright are fueled by his desire to have enough money to be financially secure and pay off his mortgage. Dupree acts as a foil to Easy in regard to money. Even though Dupree makes more than our protagonist, he does not have the same reverence for financial security as Easy. He spends his money so carelessly that he is evicted from his apartment.
The murders in the novel - aside from the death of Teran - are fueled by money as well. Joppy kills Howard Green and Coretta because he is host to an extremely deep and violent rage. But Joppy would never have sought out his victims had Daphne not offered him money - one thousand dollars - to protect her. Similarly, Junior kills Richard McGee, an "unarmed drunk," simply because Richard tries to withhold payment. Joppy presumably kills Howard and Coretta when they struggle with his interrogations, but Junior's rage over being denied money makes him seek Richard out with a butcher knife in hand and stab him clear to the hilt. At the end of the novel, Mouse claims that he killed Joppy, Mr. Albright, and Frank Green in order to protect and get revenge for Easy. But beyond his loyalty to Easy and love of inflicting cruelty, Mouse is after money. Easy explains earlier, Mouse would kill even Easy if enough money were involved.
No detective novel is complete without bloodshed. Yet Mosley incorporates physical violence in order to do more than simply thrill the reader. His use of sometimes extreme violence exposes the cruelty that human beings are capable of. Mouse, Junior, and Joppy exist on the high extreme end of the spectrum of violence. Mouse is so 'trigger-happy' or prone to kill that Junior and Joppy fear him. Mouse earned his violent reputation years before, with a series of chilling murders.
Junior too can be extremely violent. We do not witness Richard's murder, but we see the aftermath of what Junior has done. At the scene of Richard's murder, Mosley uses vivid imagery - visual and tactile - in order to give us an intimate sense of the violence at hand. He writes, "There was a butcher's knife buried deep in his chest. The smooth brown haft stood out from his body like a cattail from a pond ... Blue eyes and brown hair and blood so thick you could have dished it up like Jell-O. My tongue grew a full beard and I gagged." We learn later that Junior wreaked his rage on Richard needlessly; Junior aggravated him but did not assault or threaten him. Like Mouse and Joppy, Junior is capable of killing at the slightest provocation. As for Joppy, he has perhaps the most violent personality of any character. Even though Joppy succeeds in fooling Easy for quite some time, Easy is not surprised to discover that Joppy is responsible for Howard and Coretta's murders. He understands that it takes a deep rage to beat someone to death. Fittingly, Joppy dies violently, though not so violently as his victims.
Mr. Albright is one level below Mouse, Junior, and Joppy in his capacity for violence. More than anything else, Mr. Albright wants to save his own skin and his money. But he can be physically cruel. At the Santa Monica pier, he brings a teenager to his knees at gunpoint. Mason and Miller also use violence as a form of racial intimidation. Even Daphne Monet is capable of violence to the point of murder. Teran angers her enough that she shoots him dead. Daphne feels justified in her violence because killing a pedophile is symbolic of killing her own father.
It seems like just about everyone in Mosley's literary world is capable of hair-trigger violence - everyone, that is, except for our protagonist. Compared to his enemies and collaborators, Easy chooses to avoid physical violence. As he often repeats, he saw enough violence and death in combat not to want any more involvement with those things. His reflective nature apropos violence - even though it stems from his own history of violence - makes Easy highly sympathetic, neither cowardly nor cruel. He understands violence intimately, and so refuses to perpetuate it.
Easy carries his experiences as a soldier in World War II very close to his heart. He relates his experiences of physical violence and racism in Los Angeles back to those he had "from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself." In fact, he brings up his war experiences as soon as the novel's second paragraph. Easy experienced racism in two facets during his time as a soldier. First, he was subject to the army's segregation and other manifestations of racism. Even though he emerged from the war heroically, Easy was fighting for an army that did not consider him a full American citizen and human being. He recalls, "I was in a black division but all the superior officers were white. I was trained how to kill men but white men weren't anxious to see a gun in my hands. They didn't want to see me spill white blood. They said we didn't have the discipline or the minds for a war effort, but they were really scared that we might get to like the kind of freedom that death-dealing brings." Easy explains that despite their excuses, white men were really afraid of the power blacks might possess. He volunteered for combat in order to prove that he, a black man, was just as capable of being a hero as any white man.
Like many black soldiers, Easy is disappointed when he returns from the heroic feeling of war to the segregated South. Regardless of his victories and bravery across the ocean, back on home turf he is a second-class citizen, a "poor nigger" and "boy" again. Easy's experience of liberating a concentration camp particularly informs his views of racism. He understands that even though he is fighting for a segregated and racist army that does not respect him, he is working to save Jews and others from the Nazis' extreme brand of racism.
Because Easy has seen a wider world than his fellow community members, he is more measured in his approach to physical violence. Easy has seen enough physical violence and death not to crave it once he is back in America. We know that even though Easy did not rape or steal during the war, he killed men hand-to-hand and even ripped the face off a Nazi sniper with his bayonet. When Easy witnesses Richard McGee's murder scene, all the violence and death he experienced overseas floods back and overcomes him. Because of his experiences as a solder, violence and death nauseate, rather than excite, Easy. Easy associates violence with World War II to such an extent that when he is knocked unconscious at Primo's mansion, he dreams that he is back there. More than anything, having been a soldier gives Easy strong instincts for survival and independence, including his "inner voice."
Independence and Survival Strategies
In such a violent world as post-World-War-II Los Angeles, Mosley's characters adopt strategies in order to survive and protect their independence. Easy has a deep wish to be independent and self-sufficient, embodied in his love for his house and garden. This humble living space represents his self-pride and success. When others invade it, they simultaneously threaten his sense of security. Easy explains in Chapter 3 that he loves being a homeowner so much because he has never felt entitled to anything before. He shares, "I loved going home. Maybe it was that I was raised on a sharecropper's farm or that I never owned anything until I bought that house, but I loved my little home ... That house meant more to me than any woman I ever knew. I loved her and I was jealous of her and if the bank sent the county marshal to take her from me I might have come at him with a rifle rather than to give her up." Easy's home is so important to him that it is like a character in its own right. He will do almost anything to protect it, even resort to violence.
Easy's instinct for survival is almost a character in its own right as well. When Mosley introduces us to Easy's inner voice, it seems as though the voice is indeed a character. Easy has a conversation with it as such. We soon discover that a time of desperation in World War II "created" the voice. He explains, "The voice has no lust. He never told me to rape or steal. He just tells me how it is if I want to survive. Survive like a man." As opposed to Mouse, Junior, and Joppy, Easy will not settle for surviving by being animalistic and caring only for himself. His survival instinct is married with his morality. Easy's desire to "survive like a man" is also what prevents him from swinging to the other extreme and running away from his problems as Odell suggests. Even though Odell avoids sin and violence by avoiding confrontation, for Easy, part of being "a man" is surviving in the face of violence rather than hiding from it.
Like Easy, Joppy has a strong wish to feel secure. He buffs his beloved marble bar top not just out of reverence to his uncle, from whom he inherited it, but because it represents his independence. Like Easy's home, Joppy's bar top gives him a sense of pride and entitlement despite the racism and violence around him. What separates Joppy from Easy is that he is willing to resort not to extraordinarily brutal violence in order to protect himself and his property. Like Mouse and Junior, Joppy has an animalistic survival strategy that makes him act before considering the repercussions of his actions.
Daphne is an extremely independent character. But unlike Easy, she does not have a home base or source of pride to protect. She wants only to protect herself because she feels as though she does not belong anywhere. Daphne explains that she leaves people when she knows them too well; that is why she leaves Mr. Carter. She is not comfortable with people understanding her because she is not comfortable in her own skin. Therefore Daphne's survival strategy is unique in the novel. She prefers to change her personality to suit her present situation so that she can retain her independence without having to face her inner trauma.
Devil in a Blue Dress Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Devil in a Blue Dress is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Joppy's Bar is described as a small bar on the second floor of a building that housed a butcher's warehouse. It reeked of rotten meat and its primary customers were butchers, as they were the only ones who could stand the smell. The setting was...