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Pickings were so slim all winter long that I thought there would be no spring column. But in March, a few worthy reads popped up at my favorite bookstore. Missing from their number was Rob Rosen’s anticipated Hawaiian comedy Hot Lava. It seems to be available only as an eBook and only from its publisher, leaving Neil Plakcy still king of the Koolau mountains.
More than with any other series, the Mahu cases always involve at least some members of the Honolulu police detective’s family: Kimo Kanapa’aka’s parents or his two brothers and their wives. This is no less true in the fourth novel (following a collection of short stories): Kimo’s partner, Ray Donne, says halfway through the investigation, “Your family’s already in this case up to their butts.” The Blood in the title refers to bloodshed and murder (several of them, in fact). It also refers to kinship.
This concept of family is extended in the course of the novel. As Kimo and his lover, the fire investigator Mike Riccardi, merge their lives, Kimo begins tentatively to accept a familial allegiance to Mike’s parents. The concept of ohana runs throughout the story, so much so that the book could just as easily have been titled Mahu Ohana. Kimo, the novel’s narrator, explains to us, “Although the strict definition of ohana is family, in Hawai’i it means more — things like the way that a community comes together to take care of those in need.”
Ohana thus can embrace the entire Hawaiian people. The Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement is an integral part of the plot. (The reader learns much interesting information about the American annexation of the islands and current political campaigns.) The first murder occurs when a sniper singles out one of the marchers at a Kingdom of Hawaii rally. An important character claims to be a descendant of the royal family. Acclaimed as a hero for his actions in a confrontation with a killer, he says simply, “I had to do it. It is in my blood, you see. The blood of the kings of Hawai’i. I am responsible for my ohana.”
As for the investigation, Kimo and Ray’s problem is to sort out why these particular victims have been targeted. The novel is a police procedural. As has occurred before in the series, the suspense comes not from trying to guess who the villain is but from watching the two detectives pursue their leads to nail down motive and evidence in order to take the perpetrators into custody before they can cause more harm. Both policemen face real danger, as does one of Kimo’s brothers.
Having worked so many cases now, Kimo and Ray function with greater understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Ray often looks askance at the way Kimo calls upon his network of friends — his ohana — to skirt procedural niceties. Kimo says, “Ray was my conscience when it came to cutting corners. He was a by-the-book cop, always remembering that anything we did had to follow the letter of the law. I was more like a bull in a china shop, trying anything I could to get the job done and catch the bad guys. We made a good team.” This is the best of the Mahu series so far.
I have to be candid. I like purely supernatural mysteries; one of my all-time favorites remains Hal Bodner’s tale of vampires and ghouls, Bite Club. But having the paranormal intrude into an otherwise realistic plot always seems to me a form of cheating, even when done by such talented writers as Josh Aterovis and Greg Herren. I suspect, however, that the authors have their fingers securely on the pulse of their young adult readers.
In Herren’s standalone, Sleeping Angel (Bold Strokes Books), a wounded Woodbridge, CA teenager comes to consciousness in a hospital bed to discover that, though he can remember impersonal facts, his personal life is a blank. The doctor labels it “trauma-induced retrograde amnesia.” Recovering his memory is more than usually crucial to Eric Matthews’s well-being: the town suspects that he murdered classmate Sean Brody, whose bullet-riddled body was found in the car wreck that brought Eric to the hospital. The author’s prologue has assured readers that Eric is innocent. Eric is fairly certain of the fact himself. But how can he prove it?
His trauma has inexplicitly induced strange psychic flashes into the minds of the people with whom he comes into contact. But the truth about the murder comes out of his following up on hard leads that ultimately trigger total recall. Eric is straight in many senses of the word besides the sexual. But as he has been discovering in his search, loyalty and courage were not a part of the definition. The tale that develops involves small town homophobia and drug dealing. In solving the mystery, Eric must also learn how to atone for his past actions. It is quite an unusual novel, and very unlike Herren’s two private investigator series.
Aterovis’s The Truth of Yesterday (PD Publishing) has enough plots going to fuel three average books. To the author’s credit, I had no trouble keeping up with the various stories and the multitude of characters. The series teenage hero and narrator, Killian Kendall, works for Maryland Eastern Shores private investigator Shane Novak. Being assigned by Novak to shadow a man suspected of cheating on his wife takes Killian to a Washington, DC conference he is attending. Killian takes along his new boyfriend, the newspaper journalist Micah Gerber. As a result he finds out some unsettling truths about Micah’s former life, as well as the fact that Micah’s former boyfriend was brutally murdered in the capital. Micah hires Killian as an independent agent to find out who did it.
Killian’s former boyfriend’s sister, Judy Davis, has similarly hired him to find out what is going on with her nephew, Jake Sheridan. The teenager often disappears mysteriously and has too much money. The wise reader will also not forget a mysterious woman who shows up in Novak’s office. All these different cases coalesce in a final dangerous confrontation. The pesky ghost Amalie, a holdover from the previous novel, is also set at peace. Among all these various goings-on, Killian has a multitude of issues of his own to deal with. Seth, his personal ghost, gives him good advice, including to “quit being such a drama queen.” Killian makes progress.
The Hap and Leonard saga continues. Between 1990 and 2001 six novels featured “the Disaster Twins” — the label they have earned in their East Texas stomping grounds (“no one ever said we learned from our mistakes, not me and Leonard”). Then there was a fallow period before Vanilla Ride came out in 2009. I missed it until Devil Red (Knopf) appeared this spring. The two novels are so closely related that they make perfect back-to-back reads.
Their heroes are a study in opposites: Leonard Pine is a gay African American Vietnam veteran who is sexually well endowed, while his pal Hap Collins is a straight white conscientious objector who went to prison rather than serve in the war and whose average-size penis bears the brunt of various jokes. In common, they are jacks-of-all-trades in their forties, unsuccessful by most worldly standards but ready to fearlessly take on the world, enjoying each other’s company and having a rip-roaring good time as they stumble into one murderous situation after another.
Since all eight cases are narrated by Hap, the plots always have a decidedly heterosexual cast. And in the later books, as one of my friends has observed, “Leonard is only nominally gay — he talks the talk, sort of, but as for the walk?” Politically incorrect to the core, the novels are peppered with passages such as the following (from Vanilla Ride):
“You people,” Jimson said, “you always got to be smart-asses.”
“When you say ‘you people,’” Leonard said, “do you mean queers or niggers? I’m a little perplexed on the matter.”
“You’re queer?” Jimson said.
“I’m so queer queers call me queer.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty queer.”
My friend continued, “Sometimes the author strikes me as only structurally transgressive; his heart’s not in it.” I have to agree. Still, for sheer reading fun, only Ken Bruen’s pairing of the straight Tom Brant and the gay Porter Nash can equal Lansdale’s series.
As evident in this dialog, Leonard holds his own. He also mysteriously provides some kind of stability, of solidarity, to not only Hap but also to Hap’s girlfriend, Brett. Lansdale constantly plays against stereotypes. Redneck Hap hates bullies, Republicans, garden gnomes and pink flamingos. Both men drop names as different as Stephen Hawking and Frank O’Hara. The dialog is comically off the wall even in the midst of the most gawdawful mayhem one can imagine. The body count is high, and the violence is graphic.
In Vanilla Ride their old friend and ex-cop Marvin Hanson, now permanently crippled in line of duty, asks them to rescue his granddaughter from a lowlife drug dealer. Following their usual harum-scarum methods — “why do something smart and safe and well coordinated, when we can just drive up on them and start throwing knuckles” — they accomplish their mission, only to discover that they are now up against the Dixie mafia, crooked policemen, the FBI, and Vanilla Ride. There’s one or two alligators, also.
By the time of Devil Red, Marvin has started a private investigations agency and hired Leonard and Hap as his unlicensed “operatives.” Frustrated by the lack of police progress, Marvin’s first client hires him to discover the truth about her son’s murder. Leonard picks up on an image of a red devil that was painted on a tree at the crime scene. Working with newspaper reporter Cason Statler (from Leather Maiden, 2008), they discover connections among a whole string of deaths in a vampire cult, and then further afield among drug dealers. Villains from the previous case reappear, as does Vanilla Ride. This time the violence provokes Hap’s mental meltdown and leads to a near-death experience for Leonard. Hap refuses to return Leonard’s beloved deerstalker cap, but at case’s end they pledge their spiritual brotherhood anew.
From the first gay mystery, The Heart in Exile (1953), up to the present, romance has been an integral part of the genre. In its classical form, romance is decidedly subordinate to the mystery. Nowadays the proportions often seem reversed. We have one M/M romance after another posing as a mystery. In too many of them, the sex becomes downright numbing. One would think the market would become glutted as a new such novel appears to pop up every five days. Apparently not. Here are three recent examples that provide varying degrees of pleasure as mysteries.
Half police procedural and half domestic romance, with some crossover between the two, Etienne’s Bodies of Work (Dreamspinner) is the most unusual — and the best — of the lot. Jacksonville, FL, police detective George Martin, the openly gay narrator, works to solve various cases. Early in the novel, his longtime friend Mike Foster, a computer expert, is wounded by a bullet meant for George. His major case, which runs the course of the novel, involves tracking down a transcontinental hitman who takes out one of his targets in Jacksonville. The investigation is well executed and fairly presented to readers. Breaking the first-person narration at intervals across the story, short sketches in italics reveal the unnamed perpetrator at work and then in hiding in South America. His identity is something of a real surprise.
George finally snaps to the fact that he is in love with Mike, who has always loved him. The reader gets to see their easy-going, low-key interactions with each other and with friends and colleagues in Jacksonville, including a closeted policeman, and at their new getaway home in the mountains of North Carolina, where they become mentors to identical twins, teenage boys with a limited future before George and Mike enter their lives. The sex between the two men is pretty much left to the reader’s imagination. A typical passage goes, “We finished stripping and pulled the covers back. In our new bed, we lay face-to-face, kissing and doing other things. It was a long time before we turned the lights out.” It will be interesting to see where the proposed series goes.
L.B. Gregg’s Catch Me If You Can (Samhain) is a comic case involving an art theft and blackmail. Someone steals a bust from the New York art gallery that the narrator, Cesar Romano, currently works for; a picture disappears from the gallery at which he hopes to secure a job. Several of his friends, associates, and a former lover are being blackmailed for strange sums of money. Enter private investigator Dan Albright. Soon sparks are flying between Cesar and Dan, though the two work largely separately to discover the perpetrator.
This novel is definitely more for those horny little devils who just can’t get enough reading about gay sex. Here’s a passage, chosen at random: “I sank between his legs, letting him relax into the cushions, and dragged his pants down just enough to let his erection out. It was wide and purple-capped and veined and wet on the top. I gripped that monster in one hand and set his velvety skin against my lips.” Etc. etc.
A.M. Riley’s Death by Misfortune (MLR) is fairly complex. Set in Hollywood and told from shifting points of view, it delivers four different gay romances. A “psychic to the stars,” whose best-selling Hollywood expose has been opted for a film, is the first victim of a series of murders. Suspects all belong to a production company wrapping up a film. The romances of three crew members both hinder and aid the investigation led by closeted LAPD detective Bill Turner and his partner, Kate Crandall. Bill must face his own moment of truth as his relationship with a school teacher deepens.
Before the mystery is solved, we have such passages as this:
“That’s it,” groaned Christopher, as Bill entered him. He arched and Bill grasped his hips and pulled them upward as he rocked forward. Soon they’d established a hard, rocking movement and Christopher was gasping, ‘Oh, Bill. Yes, oh, Bill, love you, God …’ until his words had devolved in meaningless sounds and he clung to the headboard, Bill pounding into him fiercely. Bill was almost sobbing as he came.
Sometimes I wish I had never decided to go for a second edition of my book on gay male sleuths.