The Red Storm is a hard-boiled mystery by first-time novelist Grant Bywaters. It is also the first time I have read a novel featuring an African American private investigator in the segregated south. Most of the action takes place in New Orleans, a city that was a bit looser than most of the South in enforcing Jim Crow, but still a segregated city with a rigid white supremacist politics and culture. This plays a role in limiting our detective, William Fletcher’s actions. For example, he usually avoids taking jobs for white clients where he might be forced to interact in white people and find himself in trouble.
It all began when a former employer and criminal enforcer, Bill Storm, sat down at his table while Fletcher was enjoying coffee and a crossword. It was not old-home week, though. The last time they saw each other, they had a knock-down, drag-out fight after Storm released a kid Storm had kidnapped and planned to kill. Storm escaped capture by the police, though not without killing a couple police officers.
Storm wanted him to find his daughter, a daughter he had not seen since infancy. Fletcher is not willing to work for a felon, after all that would be abetting, but he decides to find the daughter in order to warn her and give her the option of deciding whether to not to meet her criminal father. He finds Zella and she’s a struggling blues singer. While she’s deciding whether or not she wants to me Storm, he is murdered.
Operating the very difficult boundaries between the police and organized crime, Fletcher focuses on keeping her safe. As a hard-boiled detective novel, it rings true. It feels right and that is probably due to Bywaters professional experience as a P.I. The atmosphere of the novel is also rich in detail and feels authentic, the casual racism, the overt racism, the resigned and resentful acceptance of crowded train seats in the back and the careful, strategic methods of approaching white people, sometimes with a friendly white police officer in tow, to avoid trouble, to gain entrance, to avoid losing his license. That all feels real.
Bywaters is less successful writing about the women in the story. They did not feel nearly so authentic or complex as Fletcher, his cop friend Brawley, or the many antagonists along the way. Even Zella, who is mercurial, felt one-dimensional, as though her mercurial temperament were a note in a character description on a note card, and not an outgrowth of who she was.
I enjoyed The Red Storm. It does not quite meet the fair play rules of The Detection Club, though most of the time we learn things as Fletcher does. However, tidying up the story with ploys such as the explanation of several plots at the bedside of a wounded conspirator is not the way mysteries should end. The whole bad guy explaining stuff is supposed to be how the hero gets loose to save the day, not a coda after the day has been saved to wrap up loose ends. Fletcher is supposed to figure it out himself, he needed to find the guy by perhaps checking in with doctors or nurses or veterinarians. Secret diaries, bedside confessions, I think Fletcher deserves better than those ploys because I like Fletcher. I like his honesty, his self-awareness and acceptance, his honesty about his flaws and about his society. I want more stories about him.