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Mischief Night. Halloween. Day of the Dead. Howling winds. Footsteps in the leaves. Murder most foul. Mysteries and autumn just go together. There’s nothing better than curling up with a good mystery on a chill autumn night.
If you like your mysteries multi-faceted (and who doesn’t?), then Slash and Burn (Bold Strokes Books) by Valerie Bronwen is the hot toddy for you. Fast-paced, darkly humorous and just plain clever, Slash and Burn is the debut novel of Valerie Bronwen, New Orleans journalist and writing professor whose short fiction appeared in the Lammy-nominated Women of the Mean Streets: Lesbian Noir edited by J.M. Redmann and Greg Herren.
Bronwen introduces Winter Lovelace (I told you this was clever), who has come to New Orleans–her old hometown–to attend a literary conference. The visit to New Orleans is a brief sabbatical from a book that refuses to get finished and from a tenured life she’s unsure she wants to be living.
So what better city than New Orleans to try to get away from it all and spark one’s creativity? Having lived there and set many a piece of fiction there as well, Winter was definitely on the right track.
But then this is a mystery novel, so the best laid plans and all of that. Winter waits in one of the French Quarter’s soignée boutique hotels for an old friend who is also the conference organizer. Jerry is chronically late and Winter is getting increasingly annoyed by his tardiness. As she pounds an irritated text into her iPhone, she gets a welcome–or not–distraction when a body literally falls from the sky and lands with a sickening (and bloody) thud nearly at her feet.
After letting lose a few piercing screams, Winter calls 911 and then waits (this being New Orleans, it will be a long wait), trying not to look at the body. But of course she has to–because she’s seen this woman with the greying pigtails before.
Winter Lovelace is utterly believable as a writer–she’s an observer of the most minute details. An ironic and sarcastic chronicler of her own life, Winter never met a situation about which she didn’t have something snarky to say. Which is why Winter Lovelace is as funny as Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum or Agatha Christie’s early Miss Marple. Which is why Slash and Burn is a page-turner.
From her details of first meeting the murder victim in the Atlanta airport (anyone who has had the misfortune of having to spend time finding a connecting flight in that maze of concourses will appreciate Winter’s description of the airport) to her reminiscing with her old friend (who finally shows up) about their insufferable writing professor who warned them both–now successful writers–off writing, to her (of course) pursuing the crime, Winter regales the reader with a tour de force of bon mots and arch pronouncements that pay gay homage to Dorothy Parker.
Bronwen herself uses Winter and other characters to elicit political commentary–framed neatly as dishing between friends–on literary trends some of us have raised more than one eyebrow over. Notably how gay men and lesbians are used by straight writers to make a buck. Jerry decries m/m slasher fiction (hence the title) and its inherent homophobia and co-optation of gay male sexuality. (Lesbian sexuality has been co-opted for millennia by everyone and that fact is addressed in my own non-fiction book on lesbian erasure coming out next year.)
Jerry notes as he reads Winter over-the-top lines from a slash fiction novel by the deceased (written, as most are, by a heterosexual woman who wouldn’t know real gay sex if it gave her a rim job), he states emphatically, “when you’re writing about an underprivileged, oppressed group of people, you have a responsibility to get it right.” And adds (as I myself have written on these very pages), that if it were white people writing porn featuring only people of color, there would be outrage. Still okay to exploit the gays, though….
Bronwen gets that faux excerpt just right–down to the use of the words “manflesh” and “nectar.”
Winter isn’t just a bitch, though. She doesn’t take writing for granted and despite her success–or maybe because of it–appreciates her fans. When one swoons over her before she gives a workshop, Winter is sweetly responsive.
That is just the beginning of a truly engaging romp through a literary festival and a wide range of characters, gay and straight, who provide excellent fodder for Winter and her commentary on all things literary. Oh and not incidental of course, is murder.
This is one novel where the spoilers come early so I’m deliberately being a little vague on details. I’m also refraining from naming other characters, including the initial murder victim here, because I don’t want to spoil the fun. Everything in Slash and Burn is of a piece and that piece is literary devices galore.
Those familiar with LGBT fiction and/or the New Orleans literary scene will find in Slash and Burn a wickedly naughty roman à clef for the well-versed, in addition to being a solid mystery. Romans à clef are especially beloved by gay and lesbian writers–The Well of Loneliness, Orlando, Less than Zero, The Night Listener among them.
But the issue that Bronwen takes on most doggedly throughout this seemingly light-hearted mystery is the much-touted “authenticity” some writers (many as insufferable as some of the more vile characters in Slash and Burn) claim to have a market share in. What is and is not “authentic” writing runs like a garotte through all of Slash and Burn and is meant to make us readers think about the selective weaponizing of that word.
Bronwen has a flair for the dramatic, the urbane and the homage. Slash and Burn is an effective and highly entertaining debut. It will be intriguing to see what Winter Lovelace gets up to in Bronwen’s next book.
I like Anne Laughlin’s books. They are fast-paced, detail-oriented (by which I mean she researches what she doesn’t know–like that guns are hot after they are fired or that blood continues to run for a certain amount of time before it starts to coagulate or that bipolar disorder doesn’t just fix itself) and the characters are engaging. I liked Veritas. I liked Runaway even more.
I like a writer who can be depended upon to deliver. Disclaimer here: Laughlin was named a Lambda Literary Award Foundation Emerging Writer in 2008, but I’m not under any pressure to review her here. I’m reviewing her because I like her work and like most mystery readers, I look for new books by writers who have proven themselves. She has.
Laughlin has been short-listed for the Lammy twice and her short story “It Only Occurred to Me Later”(fabulous title), was a finalist in the Saints and Sinners Short Fiction contest in 2013. She’s also won a few Goldies.
The Acquittal (Bold Strokes Books), Anne Laughlin’s latest novel, was released last week and I was waiting.
In a very compelling opener, the novel starts with murder. Things happen. We learn things. We want more.
But then it looked like the ever-dependable Laughlin failed us by not researching an integral detail.What?
The opening murder happens in February. In September– of the same year–the accused murderer has already been arrested, gone to trial and been acquitted.
Not in America. On average the time between an arrest and trial is one to two years–rarely less. (Case in point: Jodie Arias murdered Travis Alexander in 2008. She went to trial in 2013. Kimberly Lucas, accused of killing her lesbian lover’s daughter in May, has not yet gone to trial and the first preliminary hearing isn’t due next month–possibly.)
But don’t let that pesky court system detail stop you as it did me. Because you’ll like everything else that comes after the acquittal (which happens in the first five or so pages, but off the page) of the title.
You’ll like the alleged murderer, Lauren Wade, a Chicago publisher, whose beautiful, spendthrift partner with the gorgeous hair, Kelly, was the victim about whom Lauren thought quite uncharitable thoughts as she watched the blood pool around her–even though they’d been lovers for five years. You’ll like–no, love–Josie Harper, former cop and newbie PI, whose first case turns out to be Lauren’s.
Josie agrees with me–the whole speedy trial and instant acquittal sounds hinky, as they say down at the precinct. And what’s even more hinky is Sarah DeAngeles, a lesbian board member from Wade-Fellowes, the family publishing firm that Lauren runs. Sarah has hired Josie to find out who killed Kelly. So the company doesn’t lose business for their fine arts, crafts and lifestyle books. But is the reason she chose Josie really that she thought a lesbian would be more discreet or was there another reason?
Josie is pretty sure that Kelly’s killer was indeed Lauren, but Sarah, who has more than a passing interest in Lauren, doesn’t seem to care whether Lauren is actually guilty–she just wants everything to move forward. After all, there’s double jeopardy–and there’s Lauren.
Greta cares whether Josie takes the case, though. Greta is Josie’s shrink. And Josie needs a shrink (well, everyone needs a shrink) because a year earlier she was getting embarrassing tattoos she didn’t remember getting and having the kind of manic bipolar episode that required hospitalization–and also that she exit the police force (where her father is a homicide detective, just for added humiliation).
Josie’s on shaky ground. Lauren’s on shaky ground. What could possibly go wrong when two people desperate to prove themselves meet and the subject is murder?
There are several plots going at once in The Acquittal, all of them intriguing. There is, of course, the murder of Kelly Moore–who was also having an affair at the time of her death and about whom Lauren has thus-far refused to speak, even in her own defense.
Another is Josie’s illness. Laughlin gets bipolar disorder right–including the importance of taking medications religiously and the frustration with others monitoring your behavior for the slightest sign of relapse. Those of us who have people with bipolar disorder in our lives will recognize Josie.
And then there are more problems at Wade-Fellowes than meet the eye–and those problems threaten more than just the standing of the company within the business community.
Laughlin’s other mysteries–Sometimes Quickly, Veritas, Runaway–have been stand-alones, but one hopes (I hope) that The Acquittal is the beginning of a Josie Harper series. Josie is a terrific character, written with verve and depth. She’s immensely likeable and the issues she’s dealing with are presented forthrightly and sensitively without bogging down the mystery plot.
I like the idea of a detective with bipolar disorder–in part because I like the idea of bipolar disorder being written about as a serious, chronic illness that someone can still function with, and in part because it’s a disease that has infiltrated the LGBT community–and been adopted by people who have never been formally diagnosed for reasons that are all manner of disturbing–yet has gotten little attention. Laughlin takes the disease seriously, credits medical professionals in her acknowledgments with regard to the illness, and presents Josie with both empathetically and positively.
With The Acquittal, Laughlin has added another strong mystery to her retinue as well as a fabulous new character I hope we will see more of.
A lesbian mystery writer I always want to see more of is Ellen Hart. One of what I call the lesbian mystery triumvirate that also includes Val McDermid and J.M. Redmann (Katherine Forrest now being lesbian mystery emeritus), Hart dutifully gives us a book a year. But is it enough?
Which is why it’s superb that Bella Books is reprinting Hart’s earlier works that have gone out of print. Among these new releases–also available on Kindle–is The Merchant of Venus.
One of Hart’s most underrated Jane Lawless novels (the tenth in the series and first published in 2001), the subplot of McCarthyism in 1950s Hollywood becomes the plot as the past infects the present and–not surprisingly–secrets, some deadly, are revealed.
Jane leaves Minneapolis (yes–she really does) and goes East with BFF Cordelia Thorne at Cordie’s urging to be Cordie’s plus one. Cordie’s actress sister Octavia’s is about to be married for the third time, now to a reclusive and ancient director, Roland Lester.
Cordelia and Octavia haven’t spoken in nearly a decade–not since their mother was killed in a drunk-driving accident with Octavia behind the wheel. But that is far from the only tension among the guests when Jane and Cordelia arrive.
This homage to Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians and of course, Shakespeare, goes where neither ever went–into the infinitely destructive horrors of homophobia. Hart deconstructs the age of the celluloid closet with help from one of the book’s characters, a documentary filmmaker, Ellie Saks.
There’s a good deal of killing, past and present, and a lot of history folded into Hart’s story. Our Jane is recovering from getting smashed up in her last adventure (another Bella reprint, Hunting the Witch) and from becoming single again–insult to literal injury. Alas for Jane, the escape from the stresses of her everyday life becomes less than paradisical as bodies begin to fall at the Innishannon mansion that has seen better days.
Hart has an epigraph from Harry Truman as the novel opens which reads, “The only thing new in this world is the history you don’t know.”
I guarantee there is history in The Merchant of Venus few know–but which is part of our collective LGBT history and absolutely essential knowledge presented compellingly in Hart’s novel, which Bella has thoughtfully given to yet another generation of readers.