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The Distance: A Crime Novel Introducing Billy Nichols Hardcover – January 1, 2002
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Penzler Pick, January 2002: This debut mystery is by an author who already has a claim on the hearts of his audience: he produced two splendid works of nonfiction that are must-haves for every mystery lover's library, Dark City Dames and Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. Both take readers down new paths into a familiar, haunting landscape--that of the 1940s and '50s films that brought such a paradoxical blend of artifice and authenticity to the small, claustrophobic world of crime.
As the son of a West Coast boxing writer, Muller is writing from strength when he makes his protagonist, Billy Nichols, a newspaper boxing columnist who easily keeps pace with the mugs and thugs he covers. The setting is post-World War II San Francisco and Nichols is a journalist who pounds out his stories, stopping only afterward to ask the right questions.
His relationship to the heavyweight Hack Escalante takes a startling turn early in the story as Billy finds himself an accessory to a crime that it seems Hack has just committed. Gig Liardi, Hack's manager, is lying dead on the floor of his apartment, less than a half-hour after summoning Billy over for a scoop, and Hack's knuckles are bloody, though his eyes are wet. "This boy should never have been a fighter," Billy thinks, watching him. "Now he was a killer. A couple of his tears dropped on Gig's face."
Even if prizefighters do cry, this scene is still only one high point in a tough, vivid re-creation of a lost era of urban sports history that swaggers on for almost 40 more chapters. More mystery novels featuring "Mr. Boxing," as Billy Nichols is known, will certainly be welcome by mystery fans, but come early to the series now and get a ringside seat! --Otto Penzler
From Publishers Weekly
In his first crime novel, Muller gives an authentic if depressing view of San Francisco's downtrodden neighborhoods in the late '40s, when boxing was the way to fame and fortune. Billy Nichols, sportswriter for Hearst's Inquirer (aka "Mr. Boxing"), knows something is wrong when he finds promoter Gig Liardi's apartment door cracked open. Inside is rising fight star Hack Escalante, who has just beaten his manager to death for some unexplained insult to his wife. With the crime and the criminal apparently known at the outset, the two "go the distance" together and bury Liardi's body in Golden Gate Park. Nichols then shields his young protg from the police until the final championship bout. Det. Francis O'Connor works slowly and deliberately, while we meet numerous minor characters from the "fistic fraternity," most with little connection to the case. There is romance, graphically described, when Nichols has an affair with Escalante's wife during the young boxer's brief Navy stint. Muller knows Frisco's boxing scene well, and takes us through seedy arenas and nightclubs as his narrator (and maybe the reader) get "lost in the circuit" of unsavory bookmakers, gamblers and politicians exploiting young men eager to be written up in Nichols's columns, excerpts of which are interspersed between chapters. Those with an interest in boxing and a desire to know better the grim ambiance of the ring and locker room will be intrigued, but for others, the technical terms and sleazy characters in this sordid underworld may be too much to fathom. (Jan. 18)City: The Lost World of Film Noir, among other noir-related titles.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
THE DISTANCE combines two cultural elements which are now fading memories: professional boxing and the great newspapers. The Brown Bomber has retired to debt, and the heavyweight crown is available for a price. San Francisco is served by five daily newspapers. [Television is just coming on board and has not yet swamped the ship.] Men are men and women are women, and don't bet on the outcome.
Noir fiction depends for its success on authentic speech more than on highly cultivated plot, and Muller does a fine job of recreating the languages of the period. Just listen, and you can hear the color!
I liked especially that Muller mixed it up, but never went for the knockout. THE DISTANCE, as a title, reflects that long 15 rounds which were the nature of a life then, the grinding working class struggle to survive. And precious little whining.
covering the sport. On the very first page Muller sets the bar high by having the murder committed and the murder revealed all by page 2. Nichols role in all this is the cover up. He helps the boxer clean up the crime scene and remove the body. Now remember this is the 1940's and DNA technology wasn't invented to the
caliber of what we have today. The rest of the story is told by Billy and his fast stepping to keep ahead of the deceptive assigned the case. Since Muller set his sights so high so early in the book the middle falls flat. He knew where he wanted the story to go he just couldn't grasp the words to get it there. Close to the ending the story picks up the high pace of the beginning chapters and the ending is full of tension. The big
question is will Billy be found out about his accessory to the crime and go to jail or will Muller save his character so we can have other book about him.
The outstanding appeal of this book - and its sequel SHADOW BOXER - is the character of Billy Nichols. His tough, cynical outer shell hides a vulnerable interior. He's not the typical macho noir protagonist. He's a sensitive, perceptive, flawed man. He's a storyteller - a chronicler of fact and, sometimes, a creator of fiction. But he's an honest liar, unlike many of the other characters in the book. Because Billy doesn't have that cold, self-destructive, caring for nothing and nobody streak that is the territory of a noir protagonist, the book is suffused with warmth, light, passion and heart. Eddie Muller turns the conventions of noir and hard-boiled novels on their heads.