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Giving up trying to stay abreast of all the gay crime novels and m/m romance-mysteries appearing weekly, I relied heavily this winter on name recognition, blurbs, and the impression created by opening pages to guide me to my reading choices. Thus, new works by old friends dominate this column: Hal Bodner, Dorien Grey, Greg Herren, Steve Johnson, Jeffrey Round, and Stephen E. Stanley, with two newcomers: J. Timothy Hunt and Charles Alan Long. It is a sign of the troubled publishing world how many of these novels are self-published.
Before I turn to the eight, I want to mention three other authors. The openly gay Tom Rob Smith has concluded his Cold War trilogy about a married, exiled MGB officer with a conscience: Agent 6 (Grand Central Publishing, Jan. 2012). Gay issues, however, do not figure in the novel. Lyons and Tigers and Bears (no publisher listed, Jan. 2012), the first novel by openly gay former Boston Municipal Court Judge Dermot Meagher, does have a gay protagonist: Judge Joe Lyons. He battles Irish patriots and Catholic Church leaders intriguing to get their hands on a missing page from the Book of Kells. Readers who like Dan Brown will like Meagher. Victor J. Banish has revised his early (1966) mystery The WATERCRESS File (Borgo Press, Dec. 2011), the third in his C.A.M.P. series. The novel in its original form was the weakest of the nine volumes. Its new state allows it to join its eight brethren, all available in various reprints, without apology.
Three New Novels in Long-Running Series
The Peripheral Son is the fourteenth novel in Doren Grey’s Dick Hardesty series. It is cut very much from the same comfortable cloth as his earlier works. As always we have a gay angle that causes Dick to turn to his personal network in the gay community in order to solve the case. This time, Elena Koseva hires Dick to find her missing brother-in-law, largely disowned by his homophobic family. Victor turns up dead, the victim of a fall into a deep ravine in a wooded cruising area. Was it an accident? A sexual encounter gone wrong? Or a murder to stop cold one of two exposés the freelance investigative reporter was working on? If so, was it connected to his investigation into drugs at a local boxing arena? Or Victor’s look into corruption in a labor union, already associated with another mysterious death? Dick interviews a closeted boxer, an unsavory kleptomaniac, and Victor’s unsympathetic father and brother, among others, in what turns out to be a messy and personally dangerous case. Dick’s home life, meanwhile, continues its easy path in gay parenting; young Joshua is now heading off to first grade.
Greg Herren’s sixth Chanse MacLeod, P.I. mystery, continues the author’s interest in family dynamics. Here, a son, the boyish Jonny O’Neill, a mixed martial arts fighter, hires Chanse to find his missing mother. A third of the way through the novel, the case turns into a whodunit. Chanse has to sort out multiple lies from truth, not only within the O’Neill family, but within local Catholic politics and among post-Katrina developers before he can mark the case closed. As in other novels, this one is part roman à clef (search out “Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes” on the Web), and one learns more about the Crescent City. (The Irish Channel is a New Orleans working class neighborhood between the Garden District and the Mississippi River; the origin of its name is disputed, but there is no channel.) Though old friends from earlier novels return, this novel contributes relatively little new to Chanse’s personal biography. The emphasis here is almost entirely on the fairly complex case.
Stephen E. Stanley does not have the polish that Grey and Herren bring to their works, but there is something disarmingly charming about his Jesse Ashworth mystery series. This is the fifth in the series. The earlier novels (which I have not reviewed) recount how Jesse retired as a high school teacher and returned to his boyhood hometown of Bath, Maine, to write cookbooks but ended up setting up a private investigation agency with his new lover, ex-police chief Tim Mallory. Across the series, one gets to know the two men’s families, friends, and former lovers. This time, however, Jesse is in Montreal, where he has enrolled in a French cooking school. When the head chef is murdered very close to a spot Jesse and two of his classmates are visiting, he offers his assistance to Canadian detective Hugh Cartier. It does not take Jesse long to figure out that Hugh’s eagerness to use his expertise may be more than purely professional, and he must decide how he will handle the situation. Near the end of Jesse’s stay, a figure from his past shows up, promising new complications in future novels. Part of the series’ personal attraction for me is undoubtedly its older characters. I am grateful that the author always includes a cast list at the beginning of each novel, and I enjoy reading the various new recipes from Jesse’s kitchen that always appear in an appendix. The novels are more than worth a look.
The Peripheral Son
by Dorien Grey
Paperback, 9781936144105, 235 pp.
Murder in the Irish Channel
by Greg Herren
Bold Strokes Books
Paperback, 9781602825840, 234 pp.
Murder on Mt. Royal
by Stephen E. Stanley
Paperback, 9781466487192, 205 pp.
Two Mysteries by Canadian Writers
J. Timothy Hunt’s Killing Time in Taos has a few rough edges, but it is an engrossing tale. The very day Brandon Bennington’s mother is to arrive for a visit at the Taos, New Mexico, artist colony at which he has a residency, he and a fellow artist stumble upon a corpse in the arid countryside. It turns out to be the body of a member of the colony who disappeared before Brandon arrived. Soon a second murder, at the colony’s main house, occurs. Alexandra Bennington Peters Noble, Brandon’s larger-than-life mother, sweeps into action. Despite her son’s conviction that she lives in a fantasy world, making up or at least embellishing her colorful life, Alexandra proves quite astute about all matter of things, including her son’s infatuation with the prime suspect, photographer Ethan Arnold. The author gives his characters unusual attributes; for example, Brandon happens to illustrate medical textbooks and thus knows a great deal about human anatomy. I am especially impressed by Hunt’s mastery of camp; unlike too many would-be campy writers, he is never silly. Readers who enjoy Mark Abramson’s Beach Reading series would probably like Hunt’s novel.
Though the penultimate chapter of Jeffrey Round’s Lake on the Mountain would
fit into any classical whodunit, the novel as a whole is worlds away from the author’s Bradford Fairfax series. We have a mysterious death in the present time and a suspicious disappearance in the past, but the death does not occur until page 199, and the final showdown does not begin until page 444. What we have rather is a psychological study of the novel’s protagonist, Dan Sharp, a self-destructive individual who works as a Toronto missing persons investigator. The death and disappearance are not the only cases he works on; early on there is a case of a runaway gay teenager escaping homophobic parents. But his job is simply his job, not the center of the novel. Many more pages are devoted to Dan’s private demons: his troubles with anger management, his strangely mixed interpersonal skills, his problems with an unfaithful lover, and the various crises he faces with his adolescent son. In many ways he himself is the ultimate missing person.
Killing Time in Taos
by J. Timothy Hunt
Paperback, 9780987804402, 205 pp.
Lake on the Mountain
by Jeffrey Round
Paperback, 9781459700017, 482 pp.
To say that Charles Alan Long’s psychological thriller The God Killer is unusual is an understatement. The first victim’s body is arranged with accessories to create what appears to be a parody of Christ’s crucifixion. It takes a young psychology student interested in mythology, Trevor McDaniel, to identify the source as actually Odin’s self-sacrifice on the world tree. The second victim’s corpse is stage-managed to represent Isis. The third crime involves a pair who represent Aries and Aphrodite. Not only that, but the killings occur on days associated with the god (“Odin” is killed on Wednesday, for example). The killer gloatingly identifies himself as Fenrir the Wolf and starts leaving clues to his next murder, daring reporter Agatha Rhodes to crack the code before he can strike.Normandy,Ohio, police detective Dylan Black throws himself into the case. As he continues to consult with young Trevor, he finds himself falling in love with the student. The seemingly omniscient killer gets bolder and bolder. Even as Black thinks he has penetrated his disguise, new information undermines his theories, and the novel ends with the possibility of a sequel to come. I’ve not read a work quite like this one; it continues to haunt me.
After a nearly twenty-year absence from the gay mystery field, Steve Neil Johnson (the “Neil” was added to distinguish him from other writers named Steve Johnson) has returned with a novel involving the supernatural, Raising Kane. Its teenage narrator, Spence Williams, has recently moved to eastern Oregon, near Spokane, to live with his grandparents. The town made the newspapers somewhat earlier when it was revealed that its citizen Wendell Kane was a serial killer who preyed on young boys. Spence has a bad case of puppy love for the son of the county sheriff (and a homophobic fundamentalist). He crosses the school bully, setting up an inevitable showdown. He does not know quite what to make of the newest kid in the school, Mario, a believer in Santeria newly arrived with his uncle from New York. Matters take a deadly turn when he and Mario stumble upon Kane’s recently opened grave containing his headless corpse. Is the uncle trying to gain control of Kane’s spirit for his own nefarious purposes? Then it comes out that Kane did not work alone, which means that his accomplice is still free. Spence realizes he must try to gain control of that spirit first in order to protect himself. In the aftermath, he learns that one can wait too late to say things that should be said. But he also finds that one can learn from one’s mistakes.
As Johnson explains in an end note, the novel had its origins when he could not find a publisher for his non-gay adult thriller, This Endless Night (Clutching Hands Books, Dec. 2011). He decided to take several of the plot elements, including its use of Santeria, to construct the gay teenage mystery. Another supernatural mystery for young adults, Everybody Hates Edgar Allan Poe! “by Rathbone Ravenford” (Clutching Hand Books, Dec. 2011), has no gay elements, but it is a fun read about four teenagers, a crow, and a cat forced to live out Poe’s stories.
Hal Bodner’s Bite Club (2005) remains one of the funniest, laugh-out-loud mysteries I’ve read. Its sequel, The Trouble with Hairy, is every bit as funny. The author uses pretty much the same formula with the same characters. In the first novel, a rogue vampire threatens the security of the numerous vampires living in West Hollywood, who fear human anger against their kind. This time, it is a homophobic werewolf who poses a similar threat. Guy Chartreuse has followed his gay cousin Louis, newly out, from their New Mexican den to California, where he takes down each man Louis tricks with. The heroes of Bite Club spring into action. Vampire Chris Driscoll, his lover, Troy Raleigh, and their human teammates — the obsessively neat captain of police, the larger-than-life city manager, and the diet-challenged coroner, Chris’s closest human friend — move into action, taking young Louis into their care at the same time. It probably does take a weird sense of humor to find Louis’s answer to the question “What are you doing?” (“Getting rid of the body, of course”) hilarious — but it is. The book makes my list of top reads of 2012.
The God Killer
by Charles Alan Long
Paperback, 9780615520599, 355 pp.
by Stephen Neil Johnson
Clutching Hands Books
Paperback, 9780615576398, 192 pp.
The Trouble with Hairy
by Hal Bodner
Paperback, 9781469926971, 431 pp.
Two unpublished screenplays yielded films worthy of the attention of gay mystery aficionados. Webster Forrest’s Over the Edge (TLA, Jan. 2012) brings to mind Joe Orton for its language and situations and Harold Pinter for its claustrophobic pacing. Often seeming more like a staged play than a film, it is not an easy work to get into. I almost stopped watching several times, but in the end it was one of the more satisfying viewing experiences of the winter for me. London police are baffled by a serial killer striking gay men. Jason, a medical school dropout, who is suffering a mysterious series of blackouts, comes to in his bed to discover he is sharing it with a corpse. He enlists the help of his colleague Richard, who is unfazed by the situation. The two work together to pinpoint the murderer at the same time that they admit their attraction to each other. It definitely will not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it strangely satisfying.
Jerry H. Bell and director Kim St.Leon created a far more conventional (if somewhat vaguely misogynist) screenplay for Lost Everything (Breaking Glass, Nov. 2011). It intertwines three stories whose characters interconnect in various ways. One of the plot lines follows the exploits of a randy but closeted film star newly arrived in Miami to make a film. He goes off the deep end as a tabloid journalist does his best to out him. A second involves an unscrupulous televangelist who wants to remove his gay son’s lover permanently from the scene. The third concerns an art dealer who falls in love with the man who rescues her from her ex-boyfriend’s savage attack but who, unknown to her, serves as a hit-man for a security firm employing unorthodox methods to solve its clients’ problems. The firm’s female boss looms as an ominous presence throughout this sometimes intense thriller. I wish the film editor had served the script better by moving the scenes along at a faster pace, but the film will probably please most viewers.