Steve Monroe's debut novel, a diverting but pedestrian roman noir set in the corrupt world of professional boxing, cannily recycles numerous elements from other hard-boiled crime novels and films. Monroe's main character, Robert "the Lip" Lipranski, is a conniving, seen-better-days fight promoter who might easily be confused with Harry Fabian, the slick wrestling promoter played by Richard Widmark in the 1950 film noir classic Night and the City. The Lip manages Junior Hamilton, a promising but emotionally troubled young fighter, and the promoter will do anything to turn a routine match-up between Junior and the reigning champion into a lucrative, nationally televised event. As gambling money pours in, the Lip bets against Junior and tells the talented newcomer that he'll have to take a fall in the eighth round, setting up a familiar dilemma faced by many fictional boxers. The Lip's actions will also affect his boyhood friend Al, a bookie who will lose everything if Junior throws the fight.
Monroe alternates scenes of the Lip's furious deal-making with ones that document Al's high-stakes world of lay-off bookmaking (he takes large bets from other bookies) and charts Junior's progress in training camp. Clearly Monroe has a tremendous knowledge of, and affection for, the gambling underworld. When writing about Al and his operation, Monroe's prose crackles with enthusiasm. His terse, rat-a-tat dialogue captures Al's professionalism and is replete with the flavorful slang of gamblers and mobsters. In these vibrant sections, Monroe so convincingly depicts an exotic milieu that the formulaic episodes that make up much of the rest of the novel are particularly disappointing. Furthermore, among the three main characters, Al easily emerges as the most compelling: He is an intelligent, sympathetic, and compromised anti-hero. By contrast, the Lip's fast-talking antics quickly become irritating, while Junior's damaged, man-child innocence verges at times on offensive stereotype.
In creating his minor characters, Monroe seems almost to have anticipated a film version of his novel, so he populated it with the sort of showy roles to which quirky actors are drawn: a tough, no-nonsense, wheelchair-bound detective; a pair of eccentric brothers who own an extermination business and run an illegal telephone-wiring service on the side; and Junior's genial, multiethnic boxing family. On film, these characters will undoubtedly be amusing; on the page, they are simply distracting. More effective is the author's effortless evocation of Chicago in the late 1950s, especially its less glamorous locales: seedy bars, sweaty gyms, shabby industrial districts, and disreputable bachelor hotels. Despite its shortcomings, '57, Chicago offers brisk and undemanding entertainment.