by Grant Bywaters
Hardcover, 277 pg.
Minotaur Books, 2015
Read: March 24, 2016
So you’ve got a barely scraping by, more literate than he appears, PI in the 1930’s. He’s good with a gun, better with his fists, his mouth gets him into trouble. He has a friend with the police, and many more on the streets (well, at least people who owe him favors and vice versa). It’s not NY or LA, but so far, this is pretty straight-forward — even having his office in New Orleans doesn’t make him stand out too much. Doesn’t mean it’s bad — just that this is a variation on a theme.
What if I told you that he’s black?
Well, now here we have something new. This is a pretty big variation. Thankfully, this isn’t just a gimmick, either.
Once an up and coming boxer in NYC, William Fletcher realized that the color of his skin was going to keep him out of Title contention and falls into a life of crime, acting as the muscle for a minor-league gangster, Storm. He’s not all that crazy about the life, but he goes along for a while. Storm gets desperate, does some really stupid things and has to get out of town. Sometime in the next decade, Fletcher moves down to New Orleans, gets himself a PI license and sets up shop.
Storm comes to town, looking up his old “friend” and asks him to look for his long-lost daughter, Zelda. Without taking money from a fugitive, or even agreeing to work for him, Fletcher tracks down the girl (now a lounge singer), but will only tell Storm where if she agrees. While she’s thinking about it, things get interesting.
People start trying to kill her, for starters, and she hires Fletcher to be a body-guard. While the city begins to erupt in a gang war, somehow Zelda and Fletcher are in the middle of it — neither understands why, but Fletcher is going to find out.
The characters are so rich, so flawed, so human. Fletcher’s having to be creative to get access to people and places while being black in Louisiana in the 30’s is compelling to watch. He’s a realist about the disadvantages his color imposes on him. He’s not happy about them, but he’s not off to change hearts and minds, he just deals with the reality he finds himself in. Zelda’s deeply flawed, but trying to overcome her flaws (mostly). The criminals are great characters, too — classic mobsters in the ’30’s mold.
This is at once a historical mystery and a hard-boiled P.I. novel, a combination I hadn’t realized I wanted. But man, I had a blast with this. Along those lines, I there were a couple of vocabulary choices that seemed anachronistic, but they weren’t so obnoxious that they took me out of the moment or made me want to go look up to see if they were fitting for the time.
I feel like I should have more to say, but I really don’t. At this point, it’s just gushing — Red Storm is taut and well-paced, with a good mystery at the core and a P. I. as knight errant — protecting the damsel and righting wrongs. Fletcher is the real deal, so is Bywaters. I hope to see a lot more of both of them, soon.
Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this by the author in exchange for my review, which didn’t influence my take. The fact that he seemed willing to banter with me and caught a reference I made in an early email didn’t either — probably.