EDDIE MULLER – Shadow Boxer.   Scribner, hardcover; 1st printing, January 2003.


   There’s only one thing wrong with this throwback to the 1940s era of sports-based pulp fiction. Well, make it two. While Billy Nichols, who tells the story, is a crack San Francisco sportswriter nicknamed Mr. Boxing, there is not much in this book about either boxers or the fight game.

   What it’s really about is the continuation of the murder case begun in Muller’s first novel, The Distance. It may be that the man Nichols brought to justice in the early book is not entirely guilty. The dead woman was the wife of boxer Hack Escalante — and not so incidentally, she was the also the one Nichols was having a secret affair with.

   It’s a complicated tale, and if this is a new trend in detective fiction, it ought to stop right now. Without having read the first book, it’s impossible to know exactly who is who, and why or why not, and to whom. As detective fiction, it’s spinach, and I hate spinach.

   As a writer of historical fiction, Muller has San Francisco and its seedy (and not-so-seedy) environs down cold. As a writer of hard-boiled pulp fiction, Muller certainly gives you your full money’s worth. Or even double, considering Nichols’ single paragraph longer-than-one-page rant on pages 152-153. Boiled down, it’s a long improvised version, with several choruses, of the old adage, “No good deed ever goes unpunished.”

   This impromptu interjection is a work of noirish perfection, verging on Raymond Chandler territory, but the story that surrounds it is only better than average. What’s missing is an essential if not absolutely vital ingredient, a self-contained coherency. It’s too bad. It could have been a contender.

— May 2003

[UPDATE] 08-31-09.   I’ve always meant to, but so far I haven’t done the obvious thing and start over by reading the two books about Billy Nichols in the right order. But I haven’t — in fact, I’ve yet to read the first one — and my review is based on the fact that Shadow Boxer is the only one I have.

   Wondering, though, why this book never came out in paperback, and why there was never another book in the Billy Nichols series, I found out why on Eddie Muller’s website, in which he says, in part:

  “I tried to do some things in this book that might be considered subversive for hardboiled crime fiction … Scribner [pulled] the plug on the Billy Nichols series before he even had a chance to get his legs under him. The publisher just didnít get it, and thereís nothing you can do about it.”