Friday, October 15, 2021

The Book You Have to Read:
“Shadow Boxer,” by Eddie Muller

(Editor’s note: For this 174th entry in The Rap Sheet’s ongoing series about great but forgotten books, I have resurrected a review [slightly edited] that I penned back in the days when this blog was still an occasional newsletter distributed by January Magazine. I was reminded of it while reporting recently on plans by Eddie Muller, film noir expert and host of Turner Classic Movies’ Noir Alley series, to produce a third book in his historical crime series starring San Francisco sports columnist Billy Nichols. The character was introduced in The Distance, which won the 2003 Shamus Award for Best First P.I. Novel from the Private Eye Writers of America. He returned in the yarn under consideration here today, Shadow Boxer.)

Intersections between the often sordid world of professional boxing and crime fiction aren’t unknown. (I’m reminded particularly of Steve Monroe’s ’57, Chicago and Robert J. Randisi’s Miles “Kid” Jacoby series.) But rarely has that world been so thoroughly or convincingly portrayed as it is in Eddie Muller’s two historical novels. The son of a renowned San Francisco boxing journalist (also named Eddie Muller), and founder of the now-closed San Francisco Historical Boxing Museum, this guy knows whereof he writes. And he writes of where he knows: a post-World War II Bay Area that exudes authenticity, whether Muller is setting a scene in the now-extinct Bank Exchange Bar (birthplace of the Pisco Punch) or near the Pacific-hugging Cliff House (“a sawed-off stepchild of the spectacular Bavarian confection that glowered over Seal Rock in the late 1800s”). These are the stomping grounds, too, of newspaper sports columnist and sometimes-detective William Nicholovich—better known as Billy Nichols, “Dean of the Fistic Fraternity” or simply “Mr. Boxing.”

In The Distance (2001), set in 1948, Nichols helped to cover up the murder of heavyweight fighter Hack Escalante’s manager, doing the seemingly ingenuous pug a favor. However, the reporter’s actions led to worse trouble, as he fell dangerously for Escalante’s “knockout redhead” of a wife, Claire, and as a cop who wasn’t nearly so thick-headed as he appeared closed in on the truth.

By the end of that initial outing, Nichols—having exposed a pestiferous extortion racket and pinned blame for Claire Escalante’s killing on the deserving party—figured he was a smart guy. Yet not long after Muller sounds the opening bell in his 2003 sequel, Shadow Boxer (Scribner), it becomes obvious that Mr. Boxing didn’t know half of what was really going on. It’s now late 1948, a few months after Claire suffered a terminal hemorrhage, and Nichols is looking forward to seeing her murderer “rot in a prison cell, for life.” The last thing this celebrated scribbler for the San Francisco Inquirer wants to do is help the accused prove that he’s being unjustly sacrificed to protect “the real operators” in a more extensive criminal enterprise. However, when the defendant’s former secretary—a shapely limbed, chain-smoking, Buick-coupe-driving number named Ginny Wagner—emerges from self-protective seclusion to share with Nichols a file containing dubious trust documents linking her ex-boss with a prominent but recently deceased lawyer, Nichols can’t help but recognize the ingredients of a good story. And a juicy scandal, to boot—one that will eventually connect a Napa Valley camp for underprivileged black youths with a gaggle of dummy corporations, a backroom abortion clinic (those were sorry days before Roe v. Wade), and a conflicts-fraught deputy district attorney.

Muller, whose interest in film noir has led him to pen several non-fiction books (including 2001’s Dark City Dames and 2002’s The Art of Noir), lards Shadow Boxer with characters familiar from that genre: unctuous grifters, macho-spitting hoodlums and femmes who you know from the get-go are going to be fatale. In addition, he throws in a few extraordinary players, such as the good-hearted Manny Gold, a bulky peddler of promotional novelties, married to a mentally deteriorating socialite, who is torn between doing what he knows is right and what he thinks is necessary. Given this author’s pedigree, one might only expect that his ringside episodes (of which there are regrettably fewer here than in The Distance) should be finely framed masterpieces of anticipation and sweat and cigar smoke. But even some of Muller’s minor, binding paragraphs capture the postwar era with such tonal precision that you’re inclined to recheck the novel’s publication date. For instance, when introducing a scene in which Ginny recalls for a tea-sipping Nichols how she acquired those trust documents, the author writes:
She perched on a plump ottoman that matched the couch and took a drag of the tar-bar, her knees drawn together demurely: Little Miss Muffet’s more experienced sister. … I peered expectantly over the rim of the cup, mimicking the eager first-nighter waiting for the curtain to rise. Trying to resemble someone who actually gave a shit.
That Muller pulls off this sort of hard-bitten wordsmithing without overstepping into cliché is an enviable feat.

Of course, none of this would be quite so enjoyable were it not for the presence of Billy Nichols, an ass-protecting moral relativist who’s signally short on heroics and long on complicating flaws. Bespectacled, with a “rakish mustache,” false teeth that he has to remove before lovemaking, and a repertoire of resentments that don’t begin or end with the fact that his wife cuckolded him (and now insists that Billy help her to rear that other man’s son), the 30-something Nichols enjoys in his profession an influence and romance that otherwise elude him in life. This deadline demon can’t fully compensate for Shadow Boxer’s sometimes convoluted plot; nor does he seem inclined to explain why his paper, so obviously William Randolph Hearst’s flagship San Francisco Examiner, has been barely cloaked in these books as the Inquirer. But, fast on his feet and with a wisecracking patter, Nichols shows that he can take a punch and still go on to wow the crowd. Can round three in Eddie Muller’s series be too soon in coming?

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