Disclaimer: Author Whitfield Grant sent me an e-mail in early 2005 asking if I would accept a complimentary review copy if I would review his debut novel. I accepted as I am all about free books and I respect the effort involved in trying to market a novel by an author who is not yet established. Mr. Grant also seems like a very nice man.
After a little bit more than a year, when I finally read his novel I was disappointed. I wanted nothing more than to like it and be impressed. He is working the same market as a certain John Grisham: The Legal Thriller. Tough market.
Let me mention a little bit about the book first. Set in the late 1970's we are introduced to Tony Williams. He is a young black man with a history of distrust of whites. As a child he saw a cousin lynched. Now in high school it turns out that not only is he a swimming phenom, he is one of the fastest men on the planet setting a world record on the track and not even against competition. He becomes a Gold Medalist at the Olympics and ends up in the NFL because his college needed a defensive back and knew Tony was fast. Turns out that he is a football stud, too. Oh, and he is brutally intelligent and perfectly upright and moral. So are his two friends who are almost as talented and smart.
That's fine. I will accept the prodigal gift to mankind that is Anthony Williams and his friends. No problem. So, Tony is at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii and he turns down a sexual encounter with a white woman. That's when the troubles start. His wife starts getting letters saying how "good" Tony was, and the harassment begins. Then Tony is on trial for raping the daughter of the owner of his football team. Let me not spoil the story by saying he didn't do it.
The woman in question can't accept that she was turned down and will do anything to crush him. Throw in a rich and racist grandmother, and some sort of other conspiracy and you have the makings of a case of good vs corruption. Alright. Mr. Grant has done a good job in setting up an interesting opening storyline. It's all about execution.
But the novel feels cliche ridden and most of the times that Mr. Grant includes a corporate name he has to include the (tm) or the (r) after the name, and if a man in the novel is learning the ropes about his new job, he is actually "learning the ropes"...complete with quotation marks. It is something that set my teeth on edge early and I couldn't get over. It felt unnecessary and distracting.
The other issue I had was that while Anthony Williams and his friends were too perfect and too moral (not that there aren't or shouldn't be men like this out in the world), the actions of other characters felt over the top. Take the mysterious villain blowing perfect smoke rings or the actions of the judge...it was just too much.
That said, I admire what Whitfield Grant is trying to do (or what I think he is trying to do). He is writing a story where the protagonists are black men who can be looked up to. They are heroes. They are moral and they are intelligent and they are accomplished. This is admirable when the representations of black men in today's media is often less than moral.
Whitfield Grant comes across as a good man, and he has some very good ideas in Railroaded!, and he is giving a good perspective on the courtroom thriller...but I was disappointed that I felt the writing was lacking. I am not saying I can do better, because I'm convinced I can't. I'm just saying that as a reader I felt let down.
Mr. Grant will likely improve his craft with each subsequent novel, but this first one was less successful. I feel bad writing this because I wanted to be able to praise his book and I want to offer support to new authors trying to find an audience.