Boxing is a real man’s sport. Nothing can match the sheer force of will between two matched pugilists, going toe to toe in a ring surrounded by cheering fans. It’s a sport with rules and standards. We’re not talking gladiatorial combat here. But the goal of the match is for one opponent to pound the other into submission. And, in an ideal world, the victor will help the vanquished up from the mat so they can go fight another day.
Jack Tunney has written several short novels about the boxing world. There’s not a lot of fiction writing about boxers and martial artists these days, which is a shame. When you consider how big the Rocky franchise is/was, you’d expect there to be a whole section at the book store on “fighting novels”. But I guess B&N only has so much room and all the adolescent paranormal romances need the space. At least the Net is one place to get these books. Electronic media may be creating whole new genres as you read these words.
Felony Fists is written from the viewpoint of Patrick “Felony” Flynn, an amateur boxer and professional LA policeman in 1954. The novel opens with Flynn fighting Lester “Killer” Carter at an opening match. Carter is sponsored by gangster Mickey Cohen, himself a former boxer. Flynn is aided by Pops Hawks, who runs the Ten Hawks boxing gym (named for his large family) for the police department. Flynn, a middleweight, wins the fight, but a bigger one looms ahead: Solomon King, Cohen’s latest discovery.
One night Flynn rescues a black kid from being beaten senseless by Cohen’s thugs in a bad part of town. The kid was trying to peddle reefer without Cohen’s permission. Flynn takes out the thugs with the greatest ease before back-up arrives. He then manages to get the kid sent to the same orphanage where he was taught boxing by Father Tim, figuring it’ll do him some good. And his act of heroism has attracts the attention of LA’s reform chief-of-police.
Next, Flynn finds himself spirited into the chief’s office and asked to surrender his badge. As a recourse, he’s temporarily promoted to detective in the chief’s “hat squad”: an elite unit of detectives who sport fedoras. He’s also partnered with Cornel “Tombstone” Jones, one of the few black detectives on the LA police force. There’s just one condition: Flynn has to enter the ring and take down Cohen’s prizefighter Solomon King.
The book moves at a brisk pace. I was amazed at how much was crammed into a short novel that’s barely 100 pages long. Tunney covers the corruption in LA, the casual racism at work, and the whole world of boxing as it existed. When Flynn goes into action against Cohen’s thugs, you feel the weight of his sap glove. The rigorous training he has to endure doesn’t let up either. This is a powerful novel.
If I have one complaint it’s that Tunney tries to cover too much territory in too short a book. I would’ve liked more back story on the Coach Hawks who trains Flynn for the big fight or Flynn’s formative years. One of the boxing coach’s kids ends up being a key ingredient to the plot, but she doesn’t feature much into the story prior. There’s also some side action involving counterfeiters.
A great book about a great sport.