I don't put much stock in classifying novels by genre. The simple truth is that good writing is good writing, regardless of its form. I'm not saying that all fiction is equal, or that engaged reading doesn't require an active, critical intelligence. But books like Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and James M. Cain's Double Indemnity are not merely great crime novels; they are works of literature, with all the intricacy and insight that implies.
The tricky question of genre has marked the career of Walter Mosley since the publication of his first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, in 1990. Mosley, after all, is commonly known as a mystery writer whose reluctant sleuth, Easy Rawlins, inhabits the same desolate, sun-bleached southern California as Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, sharing much of the isolation and moral ambiguity of their hard-boiled universe. At the same time, Mosley has never been a traditional crime novelist; rather, he writes to serve a cultural agenda, and for him the mystery is less a whodunit than a vehicle for exploring a way of life. On the most basic level this exploration is racial: Easy is a black man in a white man's world, and his every action requires a delicate dance with convention, with the rigid social order of L.A. in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s—a landscape characterized by racist cops and housing covenants and the small, daily degradations of living on the color line. Still more significant, though, is the way that, read together, the Rawlins books—Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death, White Butterfly, Black Betty, A Little Yellow Dog—compose a sprawling novel of manners about twentieth-century African-American Los Angeles that owes as much to authors like Dickens and Zola as it does to the aesthetics of noir. Here Mosley portrays a community largely overlooked in the city's literature, a shadow territory with its own code of ethics. This expansive vision has everything to do with Easy: an enigmatic figure, he is less a detective than a favor broker, a private citizen who gets involved in cases out of personal connection, and knows hundreds of people at all levels of income, education, and class. Easy spends time in bars, and with criminals and con men, but he also understands the quieter pleasures of domestic life. Characters and situations carry over from volume to volume, imbuing the whole sequence with an uncommon three-dimensionality, a vivid air of consequence.