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The Distance: A Crime Novel Introducing Billy Nichols [Hardcover]

Eddie Muller
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Jan. 1 2002

It's 1948, an era when newspapermen were stars -- and San Francisco sportswriter Billy Nichols is no exception. Known as Mr. Boxing throughout the city, he is the West Coast's answer to Damon Runyon -- an insider's insider who plucks and polishes his pearllike stories from the nonstop hustle of the city's nightclubs, gambling dens, and ringside seats.

Billy Nichols is right where he wants to be, until he stumbles onto a shocking crime scene. Heavyweight boxer Hack Escalante has killed his manager, and for reasons Billy doesn't fully understand, he makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to protect the prizefighter. Soon Billy's in too deep, caught in a conspiracy of desire, deceit, and betrayal, and he sets off a chain of events whose consequences may cost him his beloved career -- and his life.

As Billy himself struggles to escape suspicion, he must square off against relentless police detective Francis O'Connor, carry on business as usual with his colorful cronies in the boxing world, and resist his overwhelming passion for a woman he dare not love.

Billy soon discovers that he's not the only yarn spinner in this nefarious netherworld: many of the characters inhabiting his well-honed newspaper columns have crafted their own alternative life stories, hiding scores of secrets. Whose story will emerge as "truth"?

As richly ambient as James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential, this debut novel brilliantly brings to life another time -- when pride and professionalism are sometimes more important than life itself.


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From Amazon

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 prot‚g‚ 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.


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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent crime novel July 8 2004
By Bee-Bee
Format:Hardcover
Very easy to see why this won the Shamus, gumshoe, anthony. An excellent crime novel, very well written, with a noir 40s and boxing backdrop that's brilliantly drawn.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent crime novel July 8 2004
By Bee-Bee
Format:Hardcover
Very easy to see why this won the Shamus, gumshoe, anthony. An excellent crime novel, brilliantly written, with a boxing world backdrop that kicks.
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By Larry
Format:Hardcover
Billy Nichols is considered "Mr. Boxing" through his popular sports column in the San Francisco Inquirer in 1948. He has not missed predicting the winner in a prizefight in over seventeen years. He is a celebrity in the boxing world where a mention in his column can make a big difference in the struggling career of a prizefighter. As our story begins, Billy is called to the apartment of a boxing manager, Gig Liardi, who claims to have important information. When he arrives, a red eyed Hack Escalante answers the door. Hack is the heavyweight fighter Gig handles. Hack tells Billy he killed Gig in a rage accidentally. Billy decides to bury the body with Hack's help and claim Gig left on a trip. They do so and must now contend with the police and their numerous associates in the boxing world.
Billy Nichols' life is wrapped around relationships both in the boxing world and his personal life. Characters and the city of post WWII San Francisco are brought vividly to life. Many shady characters inhabit the boxing world of this era and Billy moves among them as a giant. Billy is our guide and an effective one at that. It is this sense of time and place that is the major strength of this work. Perhaps it can be said that the book is a bit too long. However, the strong sure writing cannot be denied. This is a strong recommendation.
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By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Thought I'd try this one out after I heard it had won the Shamus Award for Best First Novel. The award was well deserved. It's not a great crime novel on par with (say) the best of James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler -- but it's better than the worst of those two writers, and better than the best of a lot of others. Earlier reviewers correctly pegged some of the faults -- after a great first 50 pages, the pace flags till the ending; too many minor characters pop in and out of the action, and it takes too much effort to remember who they all are; you can see the strain as Muller tries to make the plot come out the way he wants it -- but the pleasures the book offers are great. The sample boxing columns are a joy, and how many writers could take you blow by blow through a 5-round boxing match without boring the pants off you? Muller pulls it off. Some of his prose tries too hard to be slangy and period, but every now and then he'll sock you with a real gem, a turn of phrase that's so good you'll read it over again just to savor it. And the plot may not be one you'll remember for ages, but neither is it an embarrassment. It's adequate.
Most books I pick up disappoint me and I have to struggle to finish them. This one's of a much higher caliber, and I'm looking forward to more from this author.
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5.0 out of 5 stars And precious little whining ... March 25 2003
Format:Hardcover
Eddie Muller's THE DISTANCE is a wonderfully atmospheric noir tale of murder and passion set in colorful, corrupt, post-war San Francisco. [Note that the San Francisco of the late 40s was much closer in time and ambiance to the period of the great 1906 earthquake and fire than to the glistening "city on a hill" tourist mecca for yuppies and trans-gendered folk it has become today.]
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.
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