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This quarter the column features a masterful prison novel, two murder mysteries that follow unusual narrative patterns, a relatively light-hearted whodunit/romance, a historical mystery, and a supernatural tale. Nine other works worthy of attention receive mention, as do 10 crime films that appeared on DVD during 2010.
BLOOD by Jack Remick
For an author to choose as his explicit models Camus’s L’Etranger, Genet’s Notre Dame des Fleurs, and Sade’s Les 120 Journées de Sodom (all of which he has obviously read in French) and to earn the right to be mentioned in their company is quite a goal to strive for: one that only time will verify but that perhaps Jack Remick has indeed achieved.
Narrated by the sociopath Hank Mitchell, imprisoned for stealing women’s underwear from laundromats, this intensely poetic novel recounts his compulsive endeavor to record on paper his sordid life as a mercenary in Latin America, a hitman in France, a professional killer working for huge American corporations that hold themselves above the law. The world he describes, across which he strides as an agent of death, may be a record of the truth of the times in which we live; it may be self-created fiction that deliberately plays with the reader’s mind.
We are introduced to Hank’s dysfunctional and seemingly real family from whom he learned the art of deception and manipulation, and who want to return him to the outside to use for their own machinations. We meet his two lovers in prison, first René and then, after he is murdered, Squeaky. We watch the deterioration of one of the guards.
All the while, the iridescence of the language used to describe images of blood and corruption sweeps the reader through 120 chapters to arrive ultimately as curiously detached as Meursault describing the death of his mother in Camus’s novel — much as “The Rio Verde, a slender jungle river brown as chocolate, lazy as a tree sloth, meanders through Southern Mexico seeking a path to the Coast where it spills its dirty cargo into the deep and cleansing blue Pacific.”
A crime novel, an account of guerrilla warfare, a family tragedy — it is even more a remarkable novel about the act of writing and the art of reading, one that assumes a readership that is at ease with literature but a tad too complacent about the horrors unseen by bourgeois eyes.
ECHOES by David Lennon
The second mystery with New Orleans Police Detective Michel Doucette and his straight partner, Sassy Jones, marks an advance over the author’s already compelling debut, The Quarter Boys. Though Sassy dominates this novel to a large extent, the case ends up causing both of them to reevaluate their lives, their careers.
When Sassy’s former husband, Carl Adams, turns up not only dead, an apparent suicide, but in possession of photographs of three young girls who were kidnapped and murdered a quarter of a century before, Sassy must deal with her complex past relationship with him, a past that she has tried to suppress but which has bubbled up in her dreams ever since.
Soon she, Michel, and coroner Stan Lecher, the father of one of the murdered girls, are pursuing parallel investigations into the truth about Carl, about his best friend, who was shot at the time the dead Lecher girl was discovered, and about the nature of a cover-up within the police department. In doing so all three reveal some information to each other but keep back certain facts. The novel spirals to a terrifying conclusion.
Towards the end of the novel, Michel sums up for another officer: “This is how it starts, you know […]. First you make an accommodation outside the system to avoid a potential problem […] and the next thing you know you’re a rogue cop.” Now he must decide where he stands with his department. The novel also follows up on the emotional relationship that Michel developed in the first novel; it too has its problems. As a result it appears that the next novel in the series, Second Chance, will likely head in new and perhaps surprising directions.
By David Lennon
Blue Spike Publishing (CreateSpace)
Paperback, 978-1456315702, $15.95
eBook, ISBN not found, $9.95
ALWAYS KISS THE CORPSE ON WHIDBEY ISLAND by Sandy Frances Duncan and George Szanto
Always Kiss the Corpse is an unlikely page-turner. Authored by two apparently straight writers, it features one gay man and one straight woman as private investigators, a lesbian couple as clients, and a person in the middle of a transgender procedure as corpse. I couldn’t put down this second novel in the Islands Investigations International mystery series until I had finished it.
The first, rather pedestrian—though somewhat gayer—case, Never Sleep with a Suspect on Gabriola Island, set the two detectives on their course. Noel Franklin was formerly an investigative reporter for the Vancouver Sun, who was derailed first by a series he wrote that went wrong and then by the death of his lover to leukemia. Kyra Rachel — thrice married: now divorced, widowed, and separated — became bored with her work as an insurance claims investigator. Former next-door neighbors and longtime friends, they teamed up to create their agency: I.I.I.
The present case begins when a Greek American mother goes to bestow her final kiss on her dead son, only to recoil: “That’s […] not Sandro!” She hires I.I.I. to find her son and to discover “what mother’s son is in the casket.” It gradually comes out that Sandro was in the process of transitioning to Sandra. The treatment caused enough of a change in his/her appearance to confuse the mother.
The omniscient narrator permits us to become aware that something is not quite right at the clinic monitoring the transition. Plus, there is the question of why Sandra died of a heroin overdose since she was not into drugs, not to mention the existence of some curious features about the situation in which her body was found. Thus, even when Noel and Kyra convince the mother that it is her son in the coffin, a lesbian couple who were Sandra’s confidants are dissatisfied and hire them anew to discover the truth about the manner of her death.
That solved, there still remain enough unanswered questions for a successfully transgendered mentor to Sandra to hire them yet a third time to clear up those complications. In the process they arrive at the final truth, not without more than a few comic mishaps, the results of Sandra’s cousin’s mistaken set of investigations as he tries to save the family’s image. The novel does not follow the most orthodox of plots, but its story is thoroughly satisfying — and was for me quite educational.
ALWAYS KISS THE CORPSE ON WHIDBEY ISLAND
By Sandy Frances Duncan and George Szanto
Hardback, 9781926741055, $24.95
FOXE TAIL by Haley Walsh
The perky cover perfectly sets the mood for this entertaining and often humorous murder mystery. Skyler Foxe, in his first semester as high school English teacher at his old alma mater in Redlands, California, tries to be closeted at work. The randy 25-year-old lets off steam at what pass for gay bars in the very conservative county. There he picks up guys for the night and then relegates them to his S.F.C. [read the novel!], a role that a passionate Latino has some problems assimilating before he bashes the hell out of Skyler’s car in the school’s parking lot.
While Skyler is with members of the S.F.C. at one of the dance clubs, he steps out for a breath of not-so-fresh air in the alley behind the place, to stumble over the slain son of his principal. Against the advice of his best female friend, Redlands Police Detective Sidney Feldman, he cannot resist playing Sherlock Holmes. After all, he is an English teacher, and what better literary model could one have? He is not quite so prepared for a very real bullet to come whizzing in his direction.
No matter how hard Skyler works to emulate his fictional mentor, too many aspects of the mystery just do not add up. What went on at the club to cause ultimately two murders? What is the high school football coach up to? Just what kind of game is the hunky new biology teacher and assistant football coach playing? Doyle doesn’t do much, but one of Poe’s short stories does provide an insightful moment, and in the end the murder is cleared up. But, as the author explains in an afterword, a number of loose ends have been deliberately left to be cleared up in latter volumes of what she proposes to be a trilogy.
The writing is fresh; the high school students, particularly two juniors having real interrelationship issues, are engaging, and Skyler’s friends are entertaining. Even the seemingly obligatory sex scene (Skyler’s comic introduction to a P.A.) not only works in the context of the story but comes across as authentic in being, for once, about sex and not another clichéd lead-in to romance. One has high hopes for the other two novels.
By Haley Walsh
Paperback, 9781608202348, $14.99
eBook, 9781608202355, $7.99
PROVE A VILLAIN by K.C. Warwick
The year is 1591. The tailor Hugh Seaton returns to London from Cambridge to find the Strange Men’s theater company in an uproar. An unpopular actor has just been stabbed to death, and Hugh’s former lover, the playwright Kit Marlowe, is the chief suspect. After finding and hiding Kit away, Hugh joins forces with upcoming playwright Will Shakespeare and boy actor Barnaby Winter to track down the killer.
The mystery plot is a thread around which to weave a romance. The emotional and physical attraction that Hugh felt for Kit, and fought against, rekindles. The reader gets glimpses of Will’s complex relationship with his patron. The pacing of the story is a bit slow, particularly if one is reading primarily for the mystery, but the historical aspect is consistently entertaining. The obligatory bon mots by Marlowe (“anyone who doesn’t love boys and tobacco is a fool”) are dropped naturally throughout the text. More ingenious are the glimpses of Shakespeare composing lines he will subsequently use in plays (“Good deeds like candles shine… So good deeds shine like… So shines a good deed in an evil world…”).
Before the case is solved, the reader is taken into the clandestine worlds of Elizabethan spies and renegade Catholics. The British author avoids modern terms to describe the sexual relationships between men, but obviously she does not subscribe to the thesis that one needs a language before one can ascribe modern definitions to a past time; had Marlowe had the word “gay,” he would have used it. The evocative cover, though more reminiscent of paintings from the 17th than the 16th century, is by fellow author Alex Beecroft.
Warwick’s work joins the ever increasing number of novels about Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) as gay spy or as gay detective. Another came out in 2010: Ted Bacino’s The Shakespeare Conspiracy (Arthorhouse, $18.75), which takes up again the fanciful thesis that Marlowe was not killed and was the true author of the plays ascribed to Shakespeare. Earlier novels are Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford (1993), Judith Cook’s The Slicing Edge of Death (1993), Leslie Silbert’s The Intelligencer (2004), and Louise Welsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die (2004).
Marlowe also appears in two gay fantasy novels: Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett’s The Armor of Light (1988) and Lisa Goldstein’s Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon (1993). And there is David Grimm’s powerful play Kit Marlowe (2001), as well as an earlier drama by Peter Whelan, The School of Night (1992).
PROVE A VILLAIN
By K.C. Warwick
Paperback, 9780982826737, 237 p., $14.99
Bristlecone Pine Press
eBook, ISBN Not Found, $6.99
CEASAR’S FALL by Dorien Grey
The third in the Elliott Smith paranormal series, like the earlier cases, intertwines three different plot lines: the mystery itself, personal romance, and an architectural restoration manual. In solving the mystery this time, not only does Elliott have the help of John, his ghostly sidekick in the detection business, but also his lover, the painter Steve Gutierrez.
Who killed multi-million-dollar lottery winner Bruno Caesar by dragging his body to the balcony of his high-rise Chicago condo? And who stole the block of Inverted Jenny stamps that Bruno had framed and hung in his bedroom? There are more than enough suspects since Bruno finally becomes tired of all his newly made friends and even his nephew sponging off him; it is after a party at which he announces that he’s cutting them all off that his body tumbles to the street below.
Since Bruno lived a few floors above Elliott in the same complex and had invited him to parties, it is not surprising that his ghost should manifest itself via the scent of the Old Spice cologne he habitually wore; what is surprising is that Steve smells the cologne even stronger than does Elliott. Elliott must ponder even harder whether it is time to tell Steve about John’s presence. John supplies Elliott, via dreams, what information he can gather about what happened bo Bruno.
Steve takes a more personal interest in the property that independently wealthy Elliott is restoring this time, seeing it as the potential location for an art gallery he wants. Clearly, the men have arrived at the moment when they must decide whether they are ready to commit. The dynamics of the two men’s relationship remains the most interesting part of this series for me.
Another recent novel with a paranormal sleuth is Curtis Christopher Comer’s Midnight Whispers (Bold Strokes, $16.59). In what is a series of cases more than a unified plot, the hero, Blake Danzig, helps ghosts accept that they must move on. His problems with boyfriends who cannot cope with a lover who actually sees ghosts are amusing. The novel promises to be the first in a series.
By Dorien Grey
Paperback, 9781936144082, $14.99
eBook, 9781936144099, $6,99
The collection Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop, edited by store owner Otto Penzler (Vanguard Press, $24.95), makes available the extremely rare chapbook of a Pharoah Love and Albert West mystery, Schemes and Variations (1994), by George Baxt. Although Love was not the first gay detective, as has often been asserted, his 1966 debut made quite a splash. This story comes from the period of his brief resurrection and has hitherto been practically unknown.
There is something disarming about the simplicity of Stephen E. Stanley’s Jesse Ashworth series of Maine whodunits, the latest of which is The Big Boys’ Detective Agency (CreateSpace, $13.95, $4.99). A 2008 book has just come to my attention: Rob Clinger’s Luke Larkin, Private Detective: Four Gay Cases (Lulu, $22.22). Though a paperback, it is more a volume for the coffee table than for the bookshelf. In addition to its striking cover image, a dozen photographs of nude male torsos are scattered throughout the handsomely printed book. The four cases themselves are slight, but fun to read. Luke is a lusty soul who does not mind mixing business and sex.
Two novels about the porn industry have mystery plots. In Hank Edwards’s third novel about the comic antics of fluffer Charlie Heggensford, Vancouver Nights (Lethe Press, $15.00, $6.99), Canadian animal snatchers work a black market racket. Our hero’s sexual hijinks are more outrageous than even before and thus even more fun. Paul Faraday’s debut, The Straight Shooter (Bold Strokes Books, $16.95), follows the bumbling attempts of putative college student and full-time porn fan Nate Dainty and his two best friends, cousins Beso Tangelo and Jorge Ramirez, to locate the kidnapped porn star Myles Long. As one of the “persons of interest” tells Nate, “Anyone in their right mind would have called the police, and then run for cover.”
Though their detectives are straight, two outstanding first novels from Europe are of special interest to gay readers. Domingo Villar’s Water-Blue Eyes, translated from the Spanish Ojos de Agua (2006) by Martin Schifino ((London: Arcadia Books, $15.95), details the investigation into the gruesome murder of a gay saxophonist by injection of formaldehyde. The case takes Galician Inspector Leo Caldas and his loose bomb of a police assistant, Officer Raphael Estévez, into the town’s gay bars for a glimpse of the contemporary Spanish scene.
Patrick Marrinan Scapegoat (London: Robert Hale) is, for some reason, difficult to locate in the U.S. but worth the effort. A homophobic serial killer strikes at men frequenting various gay districts in Dublin. Peter Burton’s blurb about Water-Blue Eyes could apply to Scapegoat: “A briskly entertaining read, a gripping novel about the dangers of sexual deceit and sexual frustration.”
Several gay mysteries were released on video in 2010. Ron McGee’s very loose adaptation of Richard Stevenson’s Ice Blues (Here!) is for me the best of the four TV movies with Chad Allen as Don Strachey. Then there is the sexually ambiguous and throughly engaging Sherlock Holmes in the three-part BBC series subsequently broadcast on PBS: Sherlock (BBC Warner), brought into the 21st century by television writer Steven Moffat and mystery author Mark Gatiss.
Four original screenplays with gay detectives follow complex narrative strategies that play games with viewers. David Kittredge’s Pornography (Wolfe) is about a porn star’s mysterious disappearance and its effect on different characters. Cheeta Gonzalez’s Unsolved Suburbia (Ariztical) is an unusual high school murder mystery. In Ye Lou’s and Feng Mei’s Chinese film Spring Fever (Strand) the detective hired to spy on a wife’s philandering husband ends up in a relationship with him. And in the French film Lulu (Pathfinder), with a screenplay by Jean-François Goyet, director Jean-Henri Roger, and Claude Vesperini, a decidedly offbeat male detective develops an unusual relationship with the MTF transgendered title character accused of murder.
There appeared two uncommon porn mysteries. A softcore version of Dan Rhodes and Tony Dimarco’s ingenious 2009 hardcore video Focus/Refocus (Breaking Glass) plays faithfully by the rules of the mystery genre. A re-release of Tony Townsley and Warren Stephens’s 1973 Greek Lightning (Bijou) reveals the way early porn mixed sex and story, so different from what we generally find today. It follows a detective’s endeavor to retrieve incriminating documents that could destroy a presidential aide’s career.
Two crime films are worthy of note. Clapham Junction (Breaking Glass), a riveting British TV drama with an original script by playwright Kevin Elyot, takes an offbeat look at crimes against London gays. It has received very mixed reviews because of its depiction of homosexuals, but I find whole scenes remain embedded in my memory. Darren Flaxstone and Christian Martin’s Release (TLA) is an almost allegorical prison drama about three inmates — a priest, a psychopath, a disturbed youth — and a guard locked in a claustrophobic and ultimately deadly quadrille.