Portland State student Grant Bywaters published his first mystery novel, “The Red Storm,” in Dec. 2015 and was awarded first place at the Minotaur Books Private Eye Novel Competition, hosted by St. Martin’s Press.
After Bywaters first submitted the manuscript for the contest in May, he said he forgot all about it. Then he received an email in Sept. saying he’d won the contest, which included a $10,000 advance. They flew him out to Long Beach, CA for an award banquet at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention.
Bywater had written short pieces before, and his first novel took him about a year to write. The book is a hard-boiled mystery, set in 1920s and ’30s New Orleans. It was strongly influenced by a film noir course at PSU, a black history course at Portland Community College and his own experience as a licensed private investigator.
“I used my real-life experience as an investigator to give it some authenticity,” Bywaters said. “For example, I never had an office when I worked. My car was my office. So my guy doesn’t [have an office]. I try not to make it too predictable, like five thousand other books.”
Bywaters’ lead character, William Fletcher, is an African-American former heavyweight-boxer-turned-P.I. who’s having difficulty obtaining clients. Bywaters said that as a white man, writing a black protagonist presented specific challenges.
He based the character off Sonny Liston, the 1962 world heavyweight champion. He was also advised by a family friend, the late Fred Collins—a lawyer—helping him capture the racial tensions of the book’s time period.
“Significantly, his book is a revision of the genre, which has always placed white detectives in racialized milieus to exoticize them and showcase the ‘dark’ settings they could comfortably inhabit,” said Kristin Hole, the professor who taught Bywaters’ film noir class at PSU. “‘The Red Storm’” revises this by making the private eye a black man in depression-era New Orleans.”
As a child, Bywaters read classic detective fiction, from Sherlock Holmes and the L.A. Confidential series to great authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. While Bywaters said that many signature tropes are present in his novel, he tried to break conventions and resist the cliché.
To this end, he avoided watching movies during the writing process and conducted thorough research about the time period and place, visiting New Orleans specifically with this intention.
This novel is just the beginning of a series; he’s already thinking about the next one. In addition to the work he still does in private investigation, he’s also working on his B.A. in psychology, a field that has proven useful in writing his characters.
“It helps get you more three-dimensional people. You learn that people are complex,” Bywaters said. “Even the worst people have redeeming qualities. We’re not all cardboard cutouts.”
Bywaters’ sister-in-law, Demi Noriega, assisted with revision before the book was published.
“I did get to witness and help with the final editing,” Noriega said. “It wasn’t too stressful; he was really laid back and relaxed about it. That’s not to say that he wasn’t very diligent and attentive.”
Bywaters is very excited about writing his next book and has further aspirations to write a suspense novel.
“It’s been surreal—that’s the best I can say,” Bywaters said. “When I went to the bookstore and saw my book, I was like, ‘Damn, that’s crazy!’”