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Here are nine novels worth setting your sights on. Seven are by old friends: Anthony Bidulka, David Lennon, Stephen Osborne, Neil S. Plakcy, Rob Rosen, Andrea Speed, and Marshall Thornton. Reading them is hunting in familiar territory, though there are some unexpected twists in the trails they take us on. Two authors are new to the scene: John Inman and David Russell. The nine employ different strategies in creating their mysteries, but they have in common characters whom you like and care about.
First Round: Southern Comfort
In his notebooks, Raymond Chandler insisted, “Love interest nearly always weakens a mystery story because it creates a kind of suspense that is antagonistic and not complementary to the detective’s struggle to solve the problem.” Yet from the beginning, the gay mystery has intertwined a search for truth with a search for a lover. True, the first pages of Rob Rosen’s Southern Fried offer up sex, not romance. No sooner does our hero, Trip Jackson, stumble upon Zeb Jones, the stableman for the Southern estate he is about to inherit, with his pants around his ankles, than Trip’s own fly is quickly unzipped. In the best pulp fashion, lots of semen will be spilled before love enters the equation.
The mystery also takes a while to be introduced. Trip has returned from New York to South Carolina to attend his grandmother’s funeral. To his bewilderment, her will leaves the bulk of her possessions “to my surviving closest kin, my two grandsons, Trip Jackson and Beau Pellingham.” Who is Beau Pellingham? Is he Trip’s half-brother or his cousin? Is there some connection to the politically powerful Pellingham family? As Trip digs, he unearths secrets, rape, and a double murder in the past and closet cases and long-standing blackmail in the present. The case takes several, not totally unexpected, turns, and Trip’s and Zeb’s lives are endangered before various pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
At the end, two extraneous mysteries remain. Why does Trip Jackson have the same last name as his maternal grandmother, Mary Jackson? And why was the novel so poorly edited? Unless the text has been cleaned up since I bought my copy, pages are peppered with errors (the same word spelled new and knew within the same paragraph; “my parent’s [sic] death,” referring to both; “all boyed-up,” no pun intended). Though Rosen must be faulted for the manuscript he submitted, he deserved better. So many writers try to be humorous and end up merely being cute; Rosen, for one, has mastered camp. His depiction of the South deliberately uses stereotypes; that too becomes part of the fun. Thus the shoddy editing becomes all the more disconcerting.
Second Round: Vancouver Prom Night
What makes a mystery a gay mystery? Must it have a gay detective? Or is having
prominent gay characters or a gay-related problem enough? The question becomes relevant with the second novel in David Russell’s Winston Patrick series. The Vancouver lawyer-turned-school-teacher hero is straight. But the plot for Last Dance is set in motion when Tim Morgan, one of his senior students in his class on law, is denied the right to bring his older boyfriend to the senior prom. Goaded by one of his star female students (and Tim’s best friend), Winston decides to turn the ban into a learning moment. He has his class draw up the papers to legally challenge the vice-principal’s ruling under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Very quickly events accelerate from “fag” being scrawled on Tim’s locker to his being tied to a goal post and beaten. Nor does Winston escape harassment. Before the case is over, murder and arson occur. It is not a spoiler to say that more than one perpetrator is at work with as many motives. To further complicate the matter, it emerges that Tim is not quite the innocent teenager he initially appears. (I suspect some gay readers will dislike this aspect of the novel.)
Though gay issues center the plot, much of the novel concerns Winston’s offbeat relationships with women: his best friend, a prickly detective for the Vancouver police; his ex-wife, who wants him to join her for the birth of her child by an unknown father; the Czech nanny she hires to take care of the child. Winston himself is rather unexpected. Acerbic, cocky, charismatic, handy with his mouth, lacking common sense—he often reminds me of Edward O. Phillips’s gay lawyer hero, Geoffrey Chadwick.
Third Round: California Terror
Encountering a talented author at the beginning of his career is exciting. John Inman’s A Hard Winter’s Rain is an assured debut. The author audaciously mixes horror, romance, and comedy in a sometimes predictable, sometimes utterly off the wall way. The result is a page-turner, though one that periodically caused me to want to avert my eyes as the blood splashed and the body count rose. The plot is simple: a psychopath has arrived in San Diego to taunt, play with, set up to take a murder rap, and, in the end, kill hustler Sean Andros. Set against the monster is a very non-stereotypical gay hairdresser, former Marine Harry Connors, and two wise-cracking straight cops: Jimmy Smith, a Native American, and Jefferson McCray, an African American. The psycho’s deadly game climaxes during one of Southern California’s worst storms.
The killer has not reckoned upon there being so many decent people willing to protect gays and to get at the truth. Harry offers cover for Sean; as a result the two enter into a touching May-December romance. The cops take their duty to victims seriously, no matter their sexuality. Inman is also extremely good at delineating a character with a few deft strokes. Jonah, the HIV-positive bartender, quickly comes alive in the few pages he graces and becomes someone the reader admires. Even Inman’s smallest cameos, such as the Mexican American tot who sees “an angel,” become indelible. Series are wonderful. But sometimes it feels good to read a standalone—to know that these characters are immutable, that like the carvings on Keats’s urn, they will remain just as they are.
Fourth Round: Tropical Perils
Two long-running series seem posed to shift their dynamics in such a way as to take each in a whole new direction. It will be interesting to see if their writers carry through on the premises here introduced and what the results will be.
Honolula police detective Kimo Kanapa’aka returns in Zero Break, Neil S. Plakcy’s seventh book in the Mahu Investigation series (and the first without Mahu as the first word of the title). Again, it is a taut, well developed whodunit. Zoë Greenfield is found murdered in her home, leaving behind an estranged wife and two children. As Kimo and his straight police partner, Ray Donne, probe, the case gets messier and messier. What appears to be a home invasion gone deadly turns into a case of premeditated murder. And increasingly the motive seems connected somehow with her work at the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Yet another murder occurs before a double-whammy, cinemagraphic finale.
As usual, we see quite a bit of Kimo’s birth family, and more than usual of his partner Mike Riccardi’s. Feeling obviously secure now in their relationship, Kimo obsesses (that’s the only word) about whether he wants to propose to Mike that they have children. The resulting domesticity could be fraught with dangers within the continuing construct of the Mahu fictional world and for the author’s rapport with his gay readers. It also has real potential. To my mind the question is whether the presence of a child will contribute to subsequent plots or distract from them. Mark Richard Zubro’s early Paul Turner cases have shown that the former is possible.
Saskatchewan private investigator Russell Quant’s world also seems posed on the brink of taking a decisive turn as a result of events in his eighth outing, Dos Equis. I say seems. I have been fooled enough times now, most notably by Russell’s relationships with his two exes, to pay careful attention to the final words of the novel: “Who knows where this will lead. Who knows.” This time I hope Anthony Bidulka is on the level with his readers; the premise he sets up for future novels has great promise, one not yet fully explored by gay mysteries. Of the several things that have brought us to this point, much is already new in Quant’s fictional universe.
For starters, we have an inverted mystery, a pure thriller in which the interest is not on who the killer is but how Russell will trap her in her home base in Mexico. For the first time we have another gay P.I. also on the case: Jean-Paul Taine. Perhaps it is a reflection of my own personal love affair with the French, but I find this charming Québécois a happy foil for those stoical, overfed Canadians of east European stock. Russell’s long term relationship with his friend and adversary, the Saskatchewan cop Darren Kirsch, seems to take a new turn. Finally Russell’s mom almost (almost) gets the starring role she has long deserved. The plot itself is simple: a killer-for-hire is taking out elderly ladies at the request of impatient heirs. Russell’s plan to take her out is also simple but ingenious. Watching it unravel (in several senses of the word) is great fun. With “Two X’s”—a clever title (the name of a Mexican beer) that resonates in all sorts of ways across the novel—the author has returned to form.
Fifth Round: Hearts’ Ache
I have become interested in the way readers start feeling a kind of proprietorship over characters in a series. I would have thought I was immune to such, until Greg Herren proved me wrong. I felt such a sense of betrayal at a move he took in the third Scotty Bradley novel that I sent off an agonized email to him. I was a little shocked at my visceral reaction; I suspect Herren was also. I have no doubt that David Lennon was equally caught off guard by the strong reaction of some of his fans to the fifth novel in his Quarter Boy series, Reckoning. Those who thought that they were reading a trendy romance series were unprepared for the hard truths of noir, though they have been present from the beginning. In a novel written in the third person, one should be prepared for anything.
With this novel it becomes even more evident that Lennon is aspiring to create a complex interrelationship across his series, something along the lines of what Michael Nava achieved. The novel stands on its own; all the necessary information is present. But it also acts as a summary of much that has gone before, major elements of the case reaching all the way back to the first novel in the series. Beginning with a prank ransom note, an escalating series of threats come aimed at New Orleans private investigator Michel Doucette and, to a lesser extent, his partner Sassy Jones. Someone seems to be privy to their most confidential information, including what is going on in their office. Suddenly one remembers seemingly unimportant and unsolved little mysteries in past novels as the tension ratchets up and murder occurs. It is a frightening novel, an audacious novel, and one that should not be missed. My guess is that the next novel will function as a coda, permitting us to chart the great arc that unites the series, making the whole even more satisfactory than its very satisfying parts.
Marshall Thornton’s powerful fourth entry in his Boystown series, A Time for Secrets, certainly proves Chandler wrong. Set in 1982, it would be difficult to say which creates the most tension for the reader: Chicago private detective Nick Nowak’s investigation into legal and political corruption or the attack HIV (still being called GRID at this point) is waging on the body of his lover, police detective Bert Harker. The case begins strangely. The man who saved Nick and his then lover, David Laverty, from a gay-bashing years ago now hires him to locate a friend last seen in 1959. Nick succeeds, only to be confronted with two execution-style killings. Nick soon realizes they tie into accusations that a police officer back in 1959 killed a television star picked up in a raid on a gay bar.
The author has taken some of the most hoary plot elements and made them seem fresh. His recall of the confusion and growing fear that “the gay disease” unleashed at the time is spot on. Nowak’s promiscuity here feels honest (in the earlier stories, it sometimes seems gratuitous). It adds dramatic tension since we know the possible consequences of his unprotected sex, while he does not. The author captures secondary characters such as Harker’s mother and Nick’s duplicitous aunt in a few deft strokes. Even the walk-ons are memorable, including the haunting portrait of a young rookie unable to escape the closet of his own mind.
There is some evidence that Thornton, like Lennon, may be creating a greater story arc to run over a finite number of novels. In the earlier stories unsolved cases ran from one story to the next. Several times we are here reminded that the Bughouse Slasher is still on the loose. Given the lack of effective drugs at the time, it remains iffy that Harker can survive long. Daniel has never disappeared from Nick’s life. Boystown is a series from which one expects much.
Sixth Round: Werecats and Wizards
Believers in astrology might say the reason I’m so fond of Andrea Speed’s Infected series stems from my being a Leo. My own claim would be simpler: the novels are well written. Their myth has been consistent; the characters’ psychology rings true; and the mysteries are all worked out in a satisfying manner. The fifth volume, Infected: Shift, again contains two short novels detailing two different cases brought to Washington State private detective and werelion Roan McKichan. The first is an investigation into the murder of a transgendered woman allegedly killed by rogue policemen; the second is a search for a missing son. Joining characters whom the reader has come to know from previous cases are a Seattle hockey team. To Roan’s surprise the mostly straight players take delight in hanging out with a werelion and obviously could not care less that the werelion is gay. With their antics the author demonstrates a flair for comedy only seen intermittently in earlier cases. Their wacky sense of humor serves to intensify the horror, especially in the second case, involving snuff films: the aptly named Bloodbath.
Roan and Dylan’s relationship goes through a particularly difficult stretch. There is not only the lingering shadow cast by Roan’s previous lover, the dead Paris; there is also the basic enigma of Roan’s own essence. Unlike the usual infected, he has somehow escaped the transformation cycle. The lion seems to be coexisting with the human, but when it takes over, all restraints disappear. Roan suffers a sense of guilt about putting the uninfected Dylan through such emotional whiplashes. We seem to be at a turning point in Roan’s, and consequently in Dylan’s, history. Given the twists Speed has taken so far, second-guessing her seems a futile exercise. I look forward to discovering the outcome.
Duncan Andrews, an Indianapolis private detective, returns for his second, oft-
times comical investigation: Animal Instinct by Stephen Osborne. Dunc is accompanied, as before, by Robbie, his dead boyfriend; Daisy, his zombie dog; the witch Gina, his several centuries old friend; and Nick Fuller, a relatively normal school teacher ready to become his boyfriend anytime Dunc is willing. It sounds like a pretty ghastly premise for a series, but it works surprisingly well. This time someone has stolen the skull of Gina’s father, a powerful warlock known as the Animal Master, and is now wreaking havoc with its enormous powers. The perpetrator is able to command animals to attack anyone who crosses him.
Halfway through the novel, Dunc finally understands why he himself has not been assaulted and thereby identifies the thief. The rest of the case details his improvisations to contain or, if necessary, destroy the monster that the culprit has turned into. Overarching the mystery is Robbie’s growing conviction that, after being dead ten years, he should pass over and let Duncan get on with his life, including a real relationship with Nick—never mind that Dunc has no desire to lose him, is even willing to forgo sex, horny as he may be after such a long abstinence. The two novels so far do not have the sweep and power of Speed’s Infected series, but they are pleasant enough reads, something along the line of Stephen Cooper’s ghost mysteries.
Empty Cylinder: Standards
The art of proofreading seems on the verge of extinction. Sure, typos and outright mistakes slip by even the most ardent eye. I have no doubt some linger in this column so that anyone who wants to “gunn” me down can find ammo. I will be properly embarrassed, just as I’m sure Speed is that she has her hero putting his partner “though the ringer.” Such an error may cause a grin to flit across a reader’s face (particularly since the werelion apparently puts some of the villains through his digestive system), but this is clearly a case where her mind thought one thing and her fingers typed something else. I’ve had it happen to me too often not to feel empathetic.
Still, someone at her press should have caught the error. But even with major publishers, proofreading is going the way of the dodo. The case with Rosen’s Southern Fried is not an isolated incident. Some errors leave one puzzled. Given that Russell’s first person narrator is a lawyer and a school teacher, why does he consistently use I in compound objects when me is called for? Does it say something about Winston, Canadian idiom, or the author and his press?
There are a whole series of mistakes that I’m especially tired of seeing everywhere. Even though my beloved American Heritage dictionary informs me that to lie (as in to lie down) and to lay (as in to lay the book down) have been confused since the 1300s, they are different verbs, dammit! (Yes, the confusion is acceptable when it’s part of dialog.) The past tense of to lead is spelled led, not lead. And it takes only a second to check whether it is its or it’s, so why is so hard for some writers to distinguish the two? The same goes for whose v. who’s.
Maybe I’m the dodo lingering on in the age of texting. But for me, such blatant mistakes not only spoil the pleasure of reading but suggest a certain contempt for the book’s buyer. I had planned to review a novel by an author I have grown fond of. He prefaced his latest novel with a gracious note of appreciation for his publisher, a small press, and acknowledged, “Any typos or omissions are strictly my own.” Then he spoiled the gesture by continuing, “I’m a writer, not a typist. Anyone looking for editorial perfection should stick to the big publishers and pay accordingly.” Does someone with so little respect for his buyers deserve a review? We have arrived at a rueful point when one finishes a novel and feels gratitude that the work was actually well edited.
by Rob Rosen
Paperback, 9781608204359, 244 pp.
by David Russell
Napoleon & Company
Paperback, 9781926607283, 352 pp.
A Hard Winter Rain
by John Inman
Paperback, 9781613723821, 300 pp.
by Neil S. Plakcy
Paperback, 9781608205912, 284 pp.
by Anthony Bidulka
Paperback, 9781554830671, 229 pp.
by David Lennon
Paperback, 9781475009217, 311 pp.
Boystown 4: A Time for Secrets
by Marshall Thornton
Paperback,9781608205479, 238 pp.
by Andrea Speed
Paperback, 9780916727949, 370 pp.
by Stephen Osborne
Paperback, 9781613725245, 200 pp.