As I was packing for my recent trip to London, I wondered if I should even bother bringing along a novel unrelated to my teaching. My mind was focused on the loose ends that still needed tying up before the class began and I didn’t think I’d have time anyway.
Well, I was wrong about that. Turns out I read not one, but two delicious crime novels on the way to and from England.
I’d picked up “Devil in a Blue Dress” by Walter Mosley several months ago. I knew of Mosley’s reputation as a crime noir author and also was aware it had been made into a movie starring Denzel Washington in the role of Easy Rawlins.
It’s 1948 in Los Angeles and Rawlins has just been laid off from his job when he stops in for a drink at a friend’s bar in Watts and lays eyes upon a stranger.
“I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar. 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 stocks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. one lick of strawberry-blond fair escaped the band on his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes; not a color 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.”
With that as the opening paragraph, I was hooked.
Easy agrees to do the white man a favor for a nice chunk of change. Of course, that leads to another favor and then another, with increasing reward and increasing risk. Soon enough, Easy is in deeper than he’d like. But the white man, Mr. Albright, seems to have all the leverage.
The plot revolves around Easy’s search for a blonde, blue-eyed beauty, someone whose whereabouts matter greatly to Mr. Albright’s client. It’s a captivating story, made all the more interesting because the woman, like Albright, sticks out in L.A.’s black community.
Mosley is a first-rate storyteller. His characters run the gamut of the working class and the dialogue crackles in a way that’s reminiscent of Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler, yet uniquely his own.
I’ll be reading more of Mosley, for sure. He’s written more than 40 books, including a bestselling series featuring Easy Rawlins. Two thumbs up for “Devil in a Blue Dress.”
On a whim, I stopped into a used bookstore in the Notting Hill section of London. I emerged with “Winter’s Bone,” a novel I’d read years earlier. The author is Daniel Woodrell and it’s the book that helped propel him to fame, along with Jennifer Lawrence, who starred in the lead role of teenager Ree Dolly when the novel was made into a movie.
Woodrell has long been one of my favorite authors. I wrote about him several years ago on the original Rough and Rede blog (“The best of Daniel Woodrell”) and had the pleasure of meeting him at Portland’s Wordstock festival.
I don’t re-read novels, and I can’t explain why I picked up this book again, but I’m glad I did. The story was familiar, but enough years had passed that I’d forgotten some of the details and the brilliance of Woodrell’s prose.
Ree lives in the Missouri Ozarks, part of a multi-generation clan of brawling, feuding, Dollys who are zealously tribal in their distrust of the law and outsiders and prone to keep their loyalties and secrets to themselves. Most of the men have been in and out of prison, and their hardened women marry young, resigned to lives of making babies, and physical and verbal abuse. Oh, and just about every Dolly is doing meth.
With an absent dad, Ree is raising two younger brothers and caring for her mentally ill mother when a sheriff’s deputy stops by one day to let her know they’re about to lose their family home. Seems that Dad put the house up for collateral in order to get out of jail for his latest crime. If he doesn’t show up at his court hearing, the house will be forfeited.
Panicked, Ree has to somehow find her dad — or proof that he’s dead — in order to keep the house. In a family that doesn’t take too kindly too snitches, she turns to her father’s older brother for help.
“Uncle Teardrop was Jessup’s elder and had been a crank chef longer but he’d had a lab go wrong and it had eaten the left ear off his head and burned a savage melted scar down the neck to the middle of his back. There wasn’t enough ear nub remaining to hang sunglasses on. The hair around the ear was gone, too, and the scar on his neck showed above his collar. Three blue teardrops done in jailhouse ink fell in a row from the corner of the eye on his scarred side. Folks said the teardrops meant he’ three times done grisly prison deeds that needed doing but didn’t need to be gabbed about. They said the teardrops told you everything you had to know about the man and the lost ear just repeated it. He generally tried to sit with his melted side to the wall.”
This is the kind of sinister character that populates the novel. And Ree has to hope one of them will gab? Fat chance.
Two thumbs up for “Winter’s Bone.” Loved the book the second time around. Reminded me of why I admire Woodrell’s work.
Photograph of Walter Mosley: huffingtonpost
Photograph of Daniel Woodrell: Little Brown/Bruce Carr