Best L.A. Novel Ever: Devil in a Blue Dress vs. The Black Echo, Round 2
L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament Brackets
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: More Matchups
Ezekiel "Easy" Porterhouse Rawlins and Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch traipse across the Los Angeles landscape, both surrounded by rotten cops who target them for murders they didn't do and a system so out of whack it's a miracle Los Angeles doesn't implode. Separated by a generation in time, Rawlins, a seething black man mired in the post-War racism that makes him ever-wary to leave Watts, is just the sort of fundamentally decent lawbreaker that white cop Bosch would seek out to learn the truth.
Walter Mosley, in his bestselling 1990 novel Devil in a Blue Dress, gives us Easy Rawlins as an object lesson in the racial divide circa 1948. Easy is a man of violence and promiscuity who continually befriends black murderers, whores and low-lifes -- but puts himself in greater danger by responding to questions from a white girl on Santa Monica Pier.
Easy is no detective, just an aerospace worker fired from a construction team that built airplane wings. But he accepts money to search for the stunning Daphne Monet, even though he knows that if he finds Daphne he'll almost certainly put the blue-clad beauty in terrible danger.
Easy, turned into a killer by World War II and haunted by "the voice," is on a parallel mission to hit back at bigots, as he does when a white front-office man doesn't believe that Easy has an appointment with a man-about-town who is seeking Daphne.
I shook my head at him. I would have liked to rip the skin from his face like I'd done once to another white boy. ... I was disgusted. "Forget it man," I said. "You just tell him, when you see him, that Mr. Rawlins was here. You tell him that the next time he better give me a note because you cain't be lettin' no street niggahs comin' in yo' place wit' no notes!"
As Easy is drawn into an underworld of child sex slavery, incest and greed, he never loses that racial anger -- but now he's got lives to save, and reluctantly takes on as a partner his old friend Mouse, a murderer and psycho.
Harry Bosch is a maverick as well, seeing dirty cops and FBI agents everywhere as he struggles to solve a stunning bank heist and two murders, including that of an innocent street kid, Sharkey, who provided him a key tip.
But where Easy Rawlins is continually forgiven for staggering moral lapses -- he screws his passed-out friend Dupree's best girl Coretta after resisting for about thirty seconds -- Bosch lives by a rigid moral code. Rule-breaking Bosch never breaks the rules for personal gain, for which he is hated by LAPD brass.
Michael Connelly's blockbuster The Black Echo was published in 1991, during a historic spike in violent crime in Los Angeles, and amidst great distrust of LAPD. Harry Bosch is the anti-hero people are waiting for, a righteous cop who cares.
The Vietnam War vet lets us peer into his tortured soul during nightmares that plague his sleep at his cantilevered canyon-side home. In the dreams, in subterranean tunnels of 1970s Vietnam, "tunnel rat" Harry tries to kill his enemies in pitch dark.
In his waking hours, Bosch is fighting enemies in the dark in Los Angeles. He becomes convinced the bank heist murders were committed by former Vietnam tunnel rats, but Internal Affairs goons are trying to pin the crime on Harry.
Harry figures out how to beat IA, but deep inside he's already condemned himself:
It was he who had killed Sharkey. In a way, at least. Bosch had tracked him down and made him valuable, or potentially valuable, to the case. Someone could not allow that. Bosch squatted there, elbows on knees, holding cigarette to mouth, smoking and studying the body, making sure he would not forget it.
In traditional noir, the lead character is desperately trying to leave behind a dark past, but that past instead mires he or she in a pivotal tragedy. Both Connelly and Mosley set up their compelling anti-hero detectives to escape their private hells.
Easy Rawlins finally finds the dangerous Daphne Monet, enjoys hours of hot sex with her and falls madly in love. He thinks to himself:
I felt something deep down in me, something dark like jazz when it reminds you that death is waiting. "Death," the saxophone rasps. But, really, I didn't care.
But Easy is wrong, death isn't waiting -- for him. He exacts justice against the most evil people he's tangled with, including a one-time mayoral candidate who has turned a tiny boy into his sex slave, and emerges as a man in more control of his life than ever before.
Harry Bosch turns out to be right about many things, too, and finally proves that a cell of drug importers who were buddies in Vietnam is run by a top FBI agent, Rourke.
But the lonely Bosch is terribly wrong about FBI agent Eleanor Wish, who Harry falls for. Wish turns out to be corrupt on Harry's unbending moral scale.
As Harry drove away he glanced once in the mirror and saw her still at the curb. She stood there looking down like someone who had dropped something in the gutter. After that, he didn't look back.
Which of these wonderful must-reads is the best L.A. novel? The winner in this duel is The Black Echo. Michael Connelly created a man of almost-real flesh and blood, a person we wish we knew and fervently hope is out there somewhere.
Winner: The Black Echo
Previous matchups, from round one: