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I love history. History and politics are my truest, most lasting passions. Since I was in elementary school I have been fascinated by historical novels, which for me as an historian and a reporter, have always been a cheat-sheet to history. Historical novels generate an excitement about eras not our own that isn’t always conveyed in academic histories. In the past year I have read so many compelling historical novels–Man Booker Prize-winner Hilary Mantel’s stunning Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, Nicola Griffith’s masterful Hild, Sue Monk’s brilliant The Invention of Wings, Emma Donoghue’s gripping Frog Music, Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement.
These historical novels took me to places I had no other way of viewing except through the prism of the author’s research, and her keen explication of that research, so that the story read as if one was there. How else to see Griffith’s medieval period as Hild grows into a soldier or Monk’s illumination of the Grimké sisters’ abolitionist struggles? We cannot travel to these other times. And prior to the last century and a half, we didn’t even have a photographic record from which to picture these eras. So we are reliant upon the novelist/historian to scry what was and breathe it back to life for us.
In an interview with me last January for Lambda Literary, lesbian mystery icon Katherine V. Forrest said, our lesbian and gay history is so new, we have barely scratched the surface of telling it.
That comment has stuck with me ever since, not in small part because my degrees are in history, so I am a historian first and foremost–a record-keeper, if you will. An observer of my own era and a delver into those that came before.
It’s unsurprising, then, that I would be drawn inexorably to Katie Gilmartin’s riveting new mystery, Blackmail, My Love, as it is first and foremost about history. Our LGBT history. It also clarifies how vitally important historical research is to our community and how an historian–which was Gilmartin’s first calling–can put us in touch with where we came from with an eye to how we got where we are now.
Let me say from the outset that I loved this book. I love its Raymond Chandler-esque title (Chandler’s was Farewell, My Lovely, changed to Murder, My Sweet for the 1944 Edward Dmytryk classic film noir, one of the best ever, Netflix it if you’ve never seen it). I love Blackmail, My Love’s setting of 1950s San Francisco. I love that Gilmartin, who is quite the Renaissance lesbian, is a linocut artist and has illustrated her own book with a set of absolutely glorious noir linocuts depicting various scenes from the book and from our collective LGBT history. These should, I think, be collected separately in a chapbook format. They are wonderfully evocative of not just the story itself (although the one with the gun hidden in a file drawer is so perfect I would frame it for my study), but the lives of the people Gilmartin populates her book with–the lesbians and gay men, the drag queens and cross-dressers–and the milieu in which they lived and loved. This period from before most of our current community was born comes to vivid life in these darkly evocative illustrations.
What else do I love about this book? I love that Gilmartin writes with a smooth, tough-girl smokiness–she sets the noir tone she establishes in the opening lines and never falters throughout. I love that Gilmartin gets it right–the mise-en-scène, the history, the lesbians and gay men and drag queens and bisexuals and, of course, the villains–the people who put us in those closets and hidden bars and speak-easy-style clubs and forced us into the underground demimonde most LGBT people inhabited until well past Stonewall.
So yes–I loved this book. I loved it as a writer and a professor, as an historian and a lesbian activist. You will love it, too.
Blackmail, My Love is Gilmartin’s debut novel, but it doesn’t read like it. The voice sounds established and confident–the dialogue has the right tone, the first-person narrative voice of Josie O’Conner rings true to both the era of the 1950s and the noir formula. But Gilmartin also locks Jo’s voice into the play-by-play, the kind of observational nuance essential to any historical novel or any Chandler
The year is 1951, the place, of course, San Francisco. The beats had already begun to set a marker for dissidence and the outré in what is still a very small and insular city. Blackmail, My Love hooks into that hip foundation. It is the year Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon moved from New York to San Francisco and started The Ladder and “Daughters of Bilitis.” You can almost see them–or the women they knew–in Gilmartin’s descriptions of the lesbian and gay landmarks of the period and the women and men who frequented them. Gilmartin takes us to the many legendary spots of the period–the infamous Black Cat Café, described in numerous lesbian and gay histories, like Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, the North Beach area made famous by the Beats, the Fillmore, which would become iconic in the 1960s and the sexually charged Tenderloin district, where many things happened and none were discussed outside its confines.
Josie O’Conner is searching for her gay brother. That’s not a metaphor: Jimmy O’Conner, seven years her senior, and Jo were close. Since he was in the service he always rang her on her birthday, knowing she missed him and knowing she was stuck in her alcoholic family without him to relieve or rescue her. When Jimmy didn’t ring this time, an alarm bell rang instead and Jo went looking for him.
The novel opens with Josie–now calling herself Jo–at a secret gay club to which she gains entry wearing not the seamed stockings she is used to, but dressed in the oblique style of a Brassai photograph: be-trousered and be-tied and skimming along that androgynous line between female and male. Her look entices the first femme she meets at the bar yet also gets her a ready welcome from the older pipe-smoking men.
As Jo, Josie is forced to shed her femaleness because it is only in a butch persona (albeit “butch of center,” as she describes herself) that she can move from place to place, no questions asked. In 1951, women–even butches–still wore dresses and make-up and pearls and the unaccompanied woman was questionable, and as such, questioned. Jo’s initial daylight foray through Jimmy’s neighborhood leaves her feet rubbed raw from her pumps and her no closer to answers about her brother’s whereabouts. She realizes she needs another approach. We watch her pace her brother’s apartment, naked, before she literally steps into his shoes. And boxers. And clothes. (There’s a fabulous illustration here of Jo’s POV: She’s standing, Chandler-esque looking down at her male attire. We see not her, but what she sees. Brilliant.)
The search for Jimmy is what impels the story of Blackmail, My Love, but the subtext–or maybe even the main text–is what it was like to be living lesbian or gay or doing drag by night in 1951. Blackmail, My Love is, after all, an historical tour through that time before we were allowed above ground, that time when the place where we lived our lives was in the shadow spaces between the closet and the night, where darkness was our main home, fear of exposure or violence, our constant companion.
Jo is, like Mark Twain, an innocent abroad. She thinks she can walk into this demimonde because she is a member and her brother is a member and somehow be embraced, as well as get answers to her questions about what happened to Jimmy.
But she’s forgotten where she is. She can’t go up to lesbian and gay strangers and grill them. That’s what private eyes and undercover cops do. That’s how lesbians and gay men get exposed and ruined. We watch as glints in the eye turn cold and come-hither looks turn acid. It isn’t long before Jo is escorted away from the customers she is upsetting with a firm grip that turns yet more firm.
As she establishes her male persona–first cutting her own hair haphazardly, then going to a barber to have it professionally done, she has an answer for every question. She cut her hair while drunk, needs it fixed up. She needs a suit because she can’t bear to have her brother’s taken in. He’d need it later. She’s instructed to get a hat–we can already envision her with a fedora slouched to the left.
But nothing is easy. The barber is kind–he’s used to doing the hair of butch women and femme men. The pawnshop owner is empathetic when she pawns her brother’s shoes–he gives her a small hand-weight and tells her to use it if she has to throw a punch, expecting she will.
That eventuality happens more quickly than anyone could know when Jo enters a small clothing shop off the beaten path. In her brother’s over-large suit, she’s taken not for a butch lesbian, but a nelly gay man. But as the measurements are taken and the clerk lingers over her breasts and the inseam of her trousers, the scene turns dark and dangerous, as it did often for lesbians in 1951. The door of the shop is locked., the voices of the clerks menace her. Rape is imminent–a rape she could never report, because even a woman in a dress wouldn’t report in 1951.
Jo escapes, but just barely and not without incident or emotional repercussions. She wends her way to a Salvation Army shop where no questions are asked and no answers are proffered. And then her real work begins: Where to find someone willing to acknowledge he or she knew Jimmy and then bring him back to her, his family of one.
Jimmy wasn’t out. What’s more, he was a former cop. Cops aren’t out now, in 2015. More than 60 years ago, it’s hard to imagine a closet deep enough to hide a gay cop. But there’s more to Jimmy’s story. He was a private detective working to uncover a blackmail ring.
There’s a point at which you can’t illumine any more of a mystery novel’s plot or the mystery is ruined, but you knew there was blackmail, because of the title.
As Jo delves into Jimmy’s life, she is told he was an informer to the police, setting up and exposing his own people. Such blackmail was immensely common in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s–cops and lawyers would work in tandem to raid gay bars and blackmail the men and women they had arrested. Many were destroyed. Some committed suicide.
Jo can’t believe Jimmy would be a “rat.” That was not the brother she knew. Her quest becomes two-fold–finding Jimmy and clearing his name.
In Gilmartin’s first incarnation, she was a college professor, teaching gender studies. For her dissertation, Gilmartin interviewed lesbians about their lives in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. That research lends a crisp verisimilitude to Blackmail, My Love. We totally believe the characters because Gilmartin’s research has turned them three-dimensional–as is true of all the best historical fiction. Every detail of the period rings right, from the opening page where Jo describes how every lesbian and gay man scouts out an escape route–often through the bathroom window–of gay bars, because raids were frequent and devastating.
In the depiction of the blackmail, Gilmartin filters the information most of us are only fuzzy on about which anti-gay laws did what, about the purges in local and federal government positions because of homosexuality–real or presumed. (As Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon explained to me in an interview many years ago, San Francisco was both a haven and a trap for lesbians and gay men when it came to employment. Purges were frequent and in 1951, Sen. Joe McCarthy was about to wreak a lot of lesbian and gay lives, from that of Alger Hiss to those whose names we will never know.)
There is more–much more–in this compelling and disturbing novel. (Jo, like all noir detectives, has a wry sense of humor, however. There are some wonderful throwaways, including an exchange in the opening pages about lesbian heartbreak.) There is the lesbian bar, Pandora’s Box (yes, really). There is a woman–a red-haired madam, because there has never been a lesbian novel in history without a redhead, even though they are only four percent of the global population and most of them are not in America, but it was the era of Rita Hayworth, so this redhead actually makes sense. There is a stellar drag queen.
And there is us–or rather, our forebears. The lesbians and gay men who lived lives on the edge, but who were brave enough to still actually lead them.
As I said, I loved this book. Blackmail, My Love blends the best of historical fiction with the best of mystery. Gilmartin’s debut bridges genre even as it transcends genre. It is a book to read for the page-turning mystery, but to savor for the nuance and detail and heart-breaking reality of what it was to be a lesbian or a gay man or a drag queen in 1951 in what has always been America’s gayest city. Blackmail, My Love will take you on a tour of our collective past. And remind you, as Forrest told me this time last year, that we have many, many more stories about our lives yet to tell.
Blackmail, My Love
By Katie Gilmartin
Paperback, 9781627780643, 312 pp.