- Writers Retreat
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Here are my recommendations for good reads in crime fiction for this fall: ten novels by Rob Byrnes, Dorien Grey, Steve Neil Johnson, Geoffrey Knight/Ethan Day, Christopher Lord, Elliott Mackle, Melissa Scott, Scott Sherman, Richard Stevenson, and Mark Zubro as well as two short stories by Marshall Thornton and Zubro. They are all, with the exception of Zubro’s story, additions to already established series or the first in a proposed new series.
At the moment I am also having fun leisurely reading my way through the various essays collected by John Connolly and Declan Burke for Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels (Atria, 2012). Even though I’m not yet a fourth of the way through the anthology, various kinds of dialog among the writers have already emerged — including comments on series. Linda Barnes writes: “Single mystery novels delight me […] but to my mind it is the series mystery that offers the ultimate in entertainment. The continuing series promises more than a single tale.” But Mark Billingham ruminates on “the inherent law of diminishing returns within which series characters operate.” In his preface Sherman ponders the advisability of continuing his series. Johnson does not make an open series even an option by identifying his new book as the first in “The L.A. After Midnight Quartet.”
By the way, Books to Die For has a fine reflection on Joseph Hansen’s Fadeout by Marcia Muller and a highly entertaining tribute to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood by Joseph Wambaugh, which is as much about Capote and Wambaugh as it is about Capote’s “nonfiction novel.” Val McDermid’s tribute to Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Height disappoints me for not even mentioning Edgar Wield and Edwin Digweed’s part in the investigation. Mehmet Murat Somer (whose fourth novel in the Turkish Delight series, The Serenity Murders, is due out in translation in December) has a lively essay on a fellow Turkish writer. There may be other gems of gay interest in the collection that I have not yet discovered.
Crime Novels as Satires
It struck me how many of these ten novels could legitimately be classified as satires. I checked The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert, to see what it said about the part satire has played in the genre’s history. The overwhelming majority of Christine R. Simpson’s entry on the subject looks at parodies of the genre itself. But here I’m thinking of the classic definition of satire as a “literary composition holding up human [i.e., universal] or individual vices, folly, abuses, or shortcomings to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to bring about improvements” (Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature, 1995).
Richard Stevenson’s Don Strachey series (save perhaps for Chain of Fools, its one excursion into the cozy) has always had a satiric bent (and note even that novel’s title). The author’s normal targets have been homophobic and hypocritical politicians and religious leaders. But he has also taken on the ways gays sometimes manipulate and misuse other gays. And so he does in The Last Thing I Saw. Here the Albany private investigator is hired by a mother to find out what has happened to her son, the missing investigative journalist Edward Wenske. Eddie’s agent is convinced that a drug ring has killed him in revenge for his exposé about the marijuana industry. Don is not quite so sure. He discovers that Wenske’s next project was going to be an investigation into Hey Look Media, a megalo-conglomerate gobbling up gay media outlets and then debilitating them. The case becomes dodgier when Eddie’s ex is brutally murdered and an HLM employee who was about to blow the whistle on the media monopoly goes missing. The investigation takes Don to New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and northern California for its surprising ending.
Specifically, Don sums up: “when there’s a near monopoly on gay news and arts and entertainment, that has to be bad for the country’s gay social health.” Example after example weave their way naturally into his investigation. Don’s wisecracks have always been a blend of both a Juvenalian and a Horatian outlook on the world. Merriam-Webster’s distinguishes them thus: “The character of the satirist as projected by Horace is that of an urbane man of the world, concerned about folly, which he sees everywhere, but moved to laughter rather than rage. Juvenal […] conceives the satirist’s role differently. His most characteristic posture is that of the upright man who looks with horror on the corruptions of his time, his heart consumed with anger and frustration.” Anyone familiar with the series will recall examples of both attitudes. Don is self-aware to the degree that he can judge even himself: one of the earlier novels is, in fact, titled Strachey’s Folly.
Structurally, this novel is a curious hybrid. For its larger portion it harks back to the techniques of Strachey’s earlier investigations. Though laced with barbed comments about current politics (“This place sounds like its personnel policies were formulated by some satanic combination of Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum”) and attacks on gay television programming (something called Dark Smooches particularly draws Don’s ire; references to it run like a refrain throughout the novel, and it provides the first instance of Don’s voicing the book’s title), the greater portion of the mystery is good old-fashioned gumshoeing with Don in control. Then at the beginning of Chapter 28, a literal knock on the door spins the narrative in a new direction. The rest of the novel seems more akin to Stevenson’s recent over-the-top approach to his series. Events now control Don, though they also prove his mettle. It ends with a touching but odd tribute to Timmy Callahan, his in-for-the-long-haul partner.
Mark Zubro is another satirist — and definitely more Juvenalian in his approach. His latest Tom and Scott mystery, Another Dead Republican, takes on the entire Republican Party, using an imaginary corner of Wisconsin as a microcosm for the nation. The state’s governor gets a sex change and other embellishments, but Zubro via Tom’s voice takes pointblank shots at the actual governor of Arizona, the former governor of Alaska, and various cardboard figures, with even a few potshots at Democrats who play by the same partisan rules. The case itself is simple: Who shot — perhaps executed — Tom’s brother-in-law? Though one has an array of suspects, the mostly likely candidate seems someone in Edgar Grum’s very bigoted family.
The novel is a fun read. It was a pleasure to type the preceding sentence. I have not been able to for a long time now. I would swear that something happened to the author about 1997 — just as he published one of his finest novels, The Truth Can Get You Killed — that soured him on the world to the point that his novels in both the Tom and Scott and the Paul Turner series became self-righteous jeremiads. In the present novel Tom Mason is still snarky in his personal comments though spot-on with his diatribes against right-wing politicians, but he is also more self-aware, more accurate about his own shortcomings and thereby likable once again. Even more than I remember from earlier novels, he is loyal to his family, and some of the compliments that he gives his husband, the Chicago baseball player Scott Carpenter, are touching in their sincerity. Though written in the first person, the story develops almost entirely through dialog, rather like a play. There are a number of forays into the Wisconsin countryside, but the action largely occurs in the murdered man’s house, complete with a drawing room confrontation with all the principal suspects at the showdown.
Last year’s Paul Turner novel, Black and Blue and Pretty Dead, Too, offered the first glimmer that the old Zubro was returning to power. We need him to. His early novels were in their own way as trenchant as Stevenson’s in their political and social critiques. Perhaps changing publishers has served the author well — though the latest book unfortunately wins hands down this fall’s Red Pen Prize for being the worst proofread of the lot. This is particularly ironic since Tom is an English teacher who prides himself on his knowledge. Presumably a new Paul Turner novel will appear next year. Paul has always been more grounded emotionally than Tom; I look forward to reading it.
A short story by Zubro, “Duped in Grit” (which appeared late last year in Windy City Queer: LGBTQ Dispatches from the Third Coast, ed. Kathie Bergquist, University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), is one of the finest pieces he has written: more confirmation of a return to power. Mike King is close to being a parody of the hard-boiled P.I. But he, his assistants, and his basset hound come vividly alive with a few deft strokes and turn out to be a very likeable bunch. The case is simple: why was he hired by a Chicago alderman to investigate a nightclub? And who killed the same alderman? A bit of political satire emerges (it’s apparently impossible to avoid when the setting is Chicago), but it is tightly controlled, and humor dominates. It will be interesting to see if Zubro picks up this new detective and does more with him. There is much potential here.
Rob Byrnes’s Grant Lambert and Chase LaMarca caper series has been Horatian all the way. In the latest installment, Strange Bedfellows, our hapless crooks also take on politics. Specifically, they are charged with recovering all evidence of incriminating cell phone photographs (“dick pics”) taken by New York City Congressional candidate Austin Peebles. (In a note, the author acknowledges that the plot was inspired by a certain real life politician with a punning last name.) As a result, our antiheroes in the first half of the novel go up against June Forteene (self-named after Flag Day), a right-wing blogger whose targets are “wild-eyed granola-chomping liberals, angry blacks, illegal Guatemalans, militant married homosexuals, godless Muslims, knife-wielding Puerto Ricans, Italian and Russian and Chinese mobsters, inscrutable Hasidim, surly teenagers, the chronically homeless, homeless advocates, and aggressive stroller moms from the Upper West Side and Park Slope.”
With Grant and Chase on the job, one can be sure that anything that can go wrong will. And so it does, including being doublecrossed by another party interested in the Congressional seat. In the even funnier second half, the pair, now out for revenge and still hoping to secure their fee, turn to old friends and assemble the Lambert/LaMarca gang of misfits (their description), including one henchman of barely legal age given to wearing superheroes’ costumes, in order to tackle five different jobs that must be completed to realize their goals. As the story line rapidly shifts from the escapades of one group to another, each one tackling its convoluted task, the reader is left hanging on for dear life, much like Jamie Brock — who started the whole mess in the first place — holds onto the back of a garbage truck hurtling down a New Jersey highway. I think I enjoyed this novel even more than the other two in the series.
Quasi-Parodies of the Genre
Christopher Lord’s The Christmas Carol Murders to a great extent parodies the traditional cozy. We have an amateur sleuth, clues and red herrings, and a final confrontation with all the suspects (in a bookstore rather than a drawing room). We are even provided a map of Dickens Junction, Oregon, the fictional site of the mystery, and (hooray!) a cast of characters. The central conceit is simple: Simon Alastair’s ancestor, Ebenezer Dick, created a living tribute to the spirit of Charles Dickens. The Christmas season is especially important for attracting tourists both to boost the town’s economy and to spread the English author’s social message; each year various festivities inspired by Dickens’s novels take place, including a re-enactment (of course) of A Christmas Carol. The novel itself is modeled upon Dickens’s novella, being told in five “staves.” This year’s presentation, however, is marred by three murders. The victims are easy to spot in advance; the perpetrator is not, though clues to the person’s identity are presented fairly in the best tradition of golden age puzzles.
The novel, however, aspires to more than simple entertainment. It also records a showdown between the spirit of Dickens and that of Ayn Rand and all that the two poles represent: “Community versus selfishness,” socialism versus objectivism. A fanatic devoted to Rand’s writing wants to buy up the entire village and convert it to her own vision. Simon is aghast: “Ms. Rand is a bad philosopher and a worse novelist.” The Christmas Carol Murders was written before Paul Ryan became the Republican candidate for vice president, so there is no way Lord could have known just how timely his work might seem upon publication.
With the help of his new boyfriend, the journalist Zach Benjamin, Simon launches his own investigation. Simon’s campy but very knowledgeable friend George Bascomb assists, and the handsome Episcopal rector Father Blaise Gilmore provides some aid. I am amused that what happens in real life sometimes seems unrealistic in fiction. Despite having fallen in love at first sight myself, I find the instant attraction between Simon and Zach, quickly the talk of the town, not quite credible. But as I have remarked in previous columns, monogamous romance seems part of the very fiber of the gay mystery tradition. The author promises that we shall see more of the pair in The Edwin Drood Murders.
Geoffrey Knight and Ethan Day’s To Catch a Fox is so over the top that it could well be considered a parody of noir and, in its action sequences, of James Bond films. It has a very flawed hero, a decaying Southern mansion, secret passageways, voodoo, plenty of sex, a few murders, a drug cartel, an albino pet alligator, and family secrets. Lots of family secrets. It is also a fun read. I can recognize Knight’s hand from his Fathom Five series, but this is my first acquaintance with Day. The plot takes more twists and turns than a backroad through a Louisiana swamp. It is set in motion when one Betty Black hires wannabe New Orleans screen writer Tucker Wilder to locate one Clay Shaw. Not that Clay Shaw. Another man with the same name. Tucker is convinced the search will provide a script that will be his ticket back to Hollywood. At the same time Black hires New Orleans private investigator Jonathan Fox to locate an individual so she can kill him. Thus it is assured that Jon and Tucker will cross paths, and soon all sorts of sparks are flying. An important minor player in the action is the “straight” NOPD Detective Rick Ford, who is happy to offer his ass to Jon just as soon as he can handcuff himself again.
Both Jon and Tucker come to realize that their family histories are intricately tied into the search. Then, the reader comes to learn things not yet known to them: that everyone is not who or what he seems to be. As Jon and Tucker learn the truth of their past, they also come to understand more about themselves. The key that drives the plot ultimately is not the solution to the various mysteries but the answer to the question whether Jon can ever learn self-control. Black tells him bluntly, “I didn’t hire you because you were smart. I hired you because you’re angry.” That anger threatens to ruin everything, including the possibility of any relationship with Tucker. A moment of true moral decision is overtaken by an act of nature playing the role of a deus ex machina. The novel ends with a cliffhanger, setting up the next in the series: A Fox in the Hole.
Steve Neil Johnson returns in top form in The Yellow Canary, set in Los Angeles at the close of 1956. The author brings gay history alive by using it as the backdrop to a case of rank political corruption, graft, embezzlement, and murder. The novel provides a reminder of what a hard fight we have had and how fragile our victories actually remain. LAPD vice officer Jim Blake arrests Charles Turner without true cause just because he is in a gay bar (which gives the novel its title) at the wrong time. Blake himself is in denial that he is homosexual; he is also ridden with guilt that he was the indirect cause of his military lover killing himself. The deputy district attorney Paul Winters, closeted by necessity, is alerted to the arrest by a gay teenage informant who witnesses Turner being hustled into the unmarked squad car. Winters arrives at the jail, to hear that Turner has killed himself. He quickly realizes, however, that one or more of the L.A. police officers have actually murdered him. But by whose orders, and why? Blake, his guilt now redoubled, and Winters form an uncomfortable team and start investigating.
Winters’s boyfriend, David Rosen, an artist, is an active member of ONE. Their relationship is an uneasy one, and Winters has never been able to say “I love you” to Rosen. Much is to change rapidly among the shifting relationships. All three men, but especially Winters and Blake, are forced into a moral dilemma that tests them to their core. Whatever decision each of the three makes, his life will change forever as a consequence. It is a battle to be fought alone with no outside aid, unlike Jon Fox’s similar moment of truth. Johnson proposes in each of the subsequent novels to examine the same basic cast of characters in a different decade through the 1980s. The series promises to provide both extremely good reads and a better understanding of gay American life during a very crucial period.
Elliott Mackle has written a sequel to his earlier historical mystery, It Takes Two (2003). This one is set in Fort Myers, Florida, in 1951. In Only Make Believe hotel manager Dan Ewing and closeted sheriff Bud Wright once again investigate a murder while warily treading their way through the minefield of blatant homophobia, freely expressed racism, and political corruption within which they must live and operate. The murder of a transvestite, whom the killer does not realize is straight, lets loose a whole chain of events that conservatives use to try to forward their own warped ends. If anything, the picture of the times is grimmer than that in Johnson’s novel.
I also want to mention that Marshal Thornton has a new short story addition to his impressive Boystown series, a prequel so far available only as an e-book. Little Boy Dead occurs during 1980’s Film Fest Chicago. Nick Nowak has just received his private investigator’s license, having lost his job with the police department the year before. With money thin, he takes a job as a driver for the festival, but the head organizer assigns him also to be the security director when he discovers Nick is licensed. In his combined capacities Nick meets the other organizers and many of the guests, including the unsavory director Dennis Hallahan, whose corpus of work is being shown as the festival’s highlight. A stolen wallet serves as a prelude to murder, and Nowak finds himself hunting down the perpetrator. One of my friends was in Chicago at the time; he reports that Thornton has perfectly recreated a sense of the period.
Former escort and amateur sleuth Kevin Connor returns for perhaps his last case in Scott Sherman’s Third You Die. If possible, avoid reading any of the advertising copy for the novel. It is hard to believe that the publisher has blown the 36th chapter (and some of the remainder) of a 45-chapter mystery, but that is just what it has done. Secondly, don’t make the mistake that I have just come to realize I made: that of expecting both sequels to be a repeat of the brilliant farce that created pyrotechnics in the debut novel. Though this case still has its share of wisecracks, its tone and its general situations are darker and its themes more social. In particular, it examines child abuse.
As a result of events in the middle novel, Kevin’s mother now has her own television talk show. At an after-taping party for a panel that includes a porn star, Kevin meets another porn actor: Brent Havens, who shares an uncanny resemblance to him, their looking enough alike to be mistaken for each other. In their brief conversation, Brent mentions that he has a story that could put some members of the industry in jail. Kevin remembers the conversation a month later when his mother starts coveting an Emmy nomination, and he tries to get in touch with Brent for a show. When his text messages are not answered, he takes a more proactive course to track him down. The trail leads him from the studio for which Brent worked through a bartending boyfriend to a fellow sex performer who became a stalker, none of whom profess to know what has happened to the missing actor.
Meanwhile, Kevin’s relationship with his closeted cop boyfriend remains rocky. Kevin resents having to sleep on his own couch when Tony’s son, Rafi, is staying over. But negotiations are vetoed before starting, even when Tony learns that his ex-wife is now referring to Kevin in front of Rafi as “that faggot he’s living with.” A better title for the novel might be, to use Kevin’s own label, “The Lost Boys.” He fears Rafi will be lost if the people who love him cannot be honest. He realizes that Tony has become lost by turning too many faces to the world. Brent was lost when his homophobic father kicked him out of the house and declared him dead. The most heartbreaking case is that investigated by Kevin’s mother, still in pursuit of an Emmy, who goes undercover to expose an unscrupulous adoption agency that is selling children, one of whose placements ended up kept in a cage for his high income adoptive parents to abuse for their amusement. The novel’s execution is a bit rocky at places and resorts to a hoary cliché to provide the final conflict. I am most bothered, however, by the gratuitous ending; I wish the author had let his characters earn it honestly. But I am also aware that I will be one of a very small number of readers who feel this way.
Dorien Grey has another case in his Elliott Smith paranormal series. Dante’s Circle concerns an exceedingly unsavory, egotistical concert pianist and aspiring Broadway musical comedy composer who ruthlessly uses other people. There is no limit to the number of people who have cause to kill Dante Benevetti; the problem for Elliott is figuring out which one had the opportunity and the means to do so. As his relationship with the painter Steve Gutierrez deepens, Elliott also discovers some surprising and heartwarming truths about his own parents.
Melissa Scott has published a solid addition to the Point fantasy series that she created with her late partner, Lisa A. Barnett. A murder mystery involving a missing gold shipment, Point of Knives bridges the two novels the team published together. I loved it as much as I did the earlier works. Here we discover how Nico Rathe and Philip Eslingen became lemen.
Let me also note that out gay writer Peter Dubé has published a thriller The City’s Gates (Cormorant Books, 2012), but if there are any gay themes within it, I missed them in my quick check.
The Last Thing I Saw
by Richard Stevenson
Paperback, 9781608207060, 229pp.
Another Dead Republican
by Mark Zubro
Paperback, 9781608207312, 303pp.
by Rob Byrnes
Bold Strokes Books
Paperback, 9781602827462, 264pp.
The Christmas Carol Murders
by Christopher Lord
Harrison Thurman Books
Paperback, 9780985323608, 276pp.
To Catch a Fox
by Geoffrey Knight and Ethan Day
Paperback, 9781479303694, 388 pp.
The Yellow Canary
by Steve Neil Johnson
Clutching Hand Books
Paperback, Paperback, 9780615695846, 238 pp.
Only Make Believe
by Elliott Mackle
Paperback, Paperback, 9781590212929, 178 pp.
Third You Die
by Scott Sherman
Paperback, 9780758266521, 344pp.
by Dorien Grey
Paperback, 9781612710655, 185 pp.
Point of Knives
by Melissa Scott
Paperback, 9781590213810, 122 pp.