One of my favorite things about the noir genre is the savagely understated humor from the narrators. Hammett was good at it. Raymond Chandler was a master. Walter Mosley is right in there with them. One of my favorite passages of the book comes early on, when a woman addresses protagonist/narrator Leonid McGill as a “n***** in a cheap suit.”
“I resented her calling my suit cheap. It was sturdy, well crafted, a suit that had three identical blue brothers between my office and bedroom closet. It’s true that it cost less than two hundred dollars, but it was sewn by a professional tailor in Chinatown. The price tag doesn’t necessarily speak to quality — not always.
As far as the other things she said I made allowances for her being from rural Georgia and having just gotten out of prison after eight years. Socially and politically, American prisons are broken down according to race: black, white, Hispanic, and the subdivisions therein — Each one demanding complete identification with one group attended by antipathy toward all others.”
I had to laugh. First because I saw that I’d been baited. I read straight into Mosley’s hands, expecting the narrator’s reaction to mirror mine. He shocks you with the slur, but then tickles you with the misdirection.
And the other half of the laugh was at the absurdity. Leonid McGill is a man who has seen just about everything, and has done many a dirty deed himself. He’s cynical and tired. He has learned some patience, he has gained some empathy, but he can still be riled. And what’s getting him hot under the collar? Not the brutal epithet, but the disrespect to his eminently practical suit.