This debut novel introduces an African-American boxer-turned-shamus struggling to ply his trade in Depression-era New Orleans.
Fifteen years ago, before he left the ring because he realized the color line would keep any black boxer from rising to the top, William Fletcher hired his muscles out to New York enforcer Bill Storm. Their association ended abruptly when Fletcher, left to guard a boy his boss had kidnapped, set him free instead. Now Storm, apparently unaware of the irony, has come to the Big Easy in search of his vanished daughter, and he wants Fletcher to help. It takes little time for Fletcher to find Zella Storm, who’s working as a singer in a seedy club, and even less to ascertain that she’s not interested in returning to her father. But that’s not really a problem, since Storm’s been shot to death in Congo Square, the first of what turn out to be many victims in this loose, violent, wide-ranging tale. Storm’s murder heralds Fletcher’s unwilling involvement in a gang war between local racketeer Johnny Ranalli and New York numbers runner Sal Mallon, the kidnapping victim Fletcher freed so long ago. The inevitable result is lots of clipped threats, fistfights, and hired thugs no more memorable while they’re still alive than after they’re dead. Bywaters saves a pair of big surprises for the end, though by that time the ranks of the cast are so diminished that precious few suspects remain.
The best things here are Fletcher’s detailed, precise first-person descriptions of boxing and slugging and his accounts of the racism to which he’s routinely subjected. But although Bywaters plows some of the same fields as Walter Mosley, the harvest isn’t nearly as rich.