Gay Mystery Roundup: Bidulka, Plakcy, Sherman, Ryan, & More
Author: Drewey Wayne Gunn
July 6, 2009
by Anthony Bidulka
Insomniac Press, $15.95
Paperback, 286 pp.
One Clara Ridge appears in the office of Saskatoon private investigator Russell Quant to hire him to track down her son. She explains that she and her late husband became estranged from Matthew Ridge when he entered reform school twenty years previously. Now wealthy, she wants to find out what has happened to him. Thus begins the fifth case in this ever surprising series. As Russell begins digging, he discovers an uglier past for the man now going by the name Matthew Moxley than the one Clara described. When the trail leads from Saskatchewan to South Africa, she agrees to pay for Russell’s trip there. Pursued by unknown, dangerous brutes, he follows a zigzag path across the southern part of the continent, to return to Canada physically and emotionally battered. Slowly Russell comes to realize he has figuratively been opening a series of nested boxes whose only commonality is some kind of prevarication. Because of what he has personally gained in Africa, however, he emerges from the case spiritually enlightened, a more perceptive human.
As the result of an encounter in one of the shanty towns outside Cape Town, Russell learns the concept of ubuntu. One of the characters defines it thus: “It means ‘humanity to others'[;] it also means ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.'” To put it another way, the community nurtures and protects its own. Russell begins to see this humanistic concept at work in his own culture: “Saskatchewan ubuntu.” He understands now that it is what saved him from near rape in his previous case (Stain of the Berry), and it comes into play in a most marvelous way again to save his life. Despite many reminders of how messy and even unpleasant human existence can be, there is a peaceful about this novel that is new to the series. Many of the characters from the previous novels return, including Russell’s wonderful mother, his troubled friends Anthony and Jared, and his new romance, Alex. Looking at them through the new faith he has gained leads Russell to make at case’s end an affirmation that has hitherto eluded him. The novel is by all odds the author’s most masterful to date: beautifully written and deeply wise.
A HUMMINGBIRD DANCE
NeWest Press, $11.95
Paperback, 240 pp.
The third novel in the Detective Lane series is equally wise and beautiful, though in a quite different manner. When we finish the novel, we understand the title’s meaning on a spiritual level, beyond the realm of words. The characters may remain in their Calgary setting throughout the story, scarcely venturing out of the city limits, but Lane’s and his fellow officer’s encounters with members of the First Nation bring both men a deep sense that the universe can be seen from more than one perspective. The case begins when the second of four housemates disappears. The date is the anniversary of the first one’s murder the year before. Detective Harper discovers it is also the same date a deaf Native American was killed two years before in a hit-and-run. He says, “It can’t be a coincidence. . . .” But who is the murderer? Suspicion falls on those close to Alexander Starchild, the original victim. Instead of intensely questioning Alex’s grandmother and others at her home, however, Lane – the wonderful, endearing Lane – first accepts her invitation to join them in a ritual sweat. Because of his natural empathy with the injured, he and Harper together solve a case that involves greed, revenge, prejudice, religious intolerance, and the closet. It is also a case, I find on rereading, in which all the clues are fairly laid out for the armchair detective. And it is a case that sometimes irrepressibly bubbles with moments of pure comedy.
Lane’s compulsion to try to protect innocence provides a common thread among the three mysteries so far. He and his life partner, Arthur, have provided refuge to Arthur’s nephew, whose father cannot admit his son’s cerebral palsy. Now Lane provides shelter to his own niece, a fugitive from a fundamentalist polygamist community, as well as to an abandoned dog. Lane thinks at one point, “We’ve all been abandoned. . . . Maybe that’s why we fight like hell to stay together.” Though he is one of the suspects in the case, Lane also does his best to protect a simple-minded Native American threatened by bigotry within the police. A bit more about Lane’s childhood is disclosed, a backstory that has emerged piece by piece in each novel, allowing the reader to come a step closer to understanding the forces that have shaped him. We also see more of the straight Harper’s home life: his problems coping with a new baby and empowering a gay son to remain true to himself in a sometimes hostile city. It is amazing how the author can pack so much into so few pages and keep his reader every step of the way.
FIRST YOU FALL
Alyson Books, $14.95
Paperback, 253 pp.
This novel offers a first in the field of the gay mystery. Across its 45-year history there’ve been a number of sleuths who were ex-hustlers, having gone on the streets when they were young and penniless. But Kevin Connor, the 23-year-old narrator of this engaging mystery, is our first working callboy. He puts to use his expertise at judging customers fast as well as getting them to open up and talk in his search for rich Allen Harrington’s killer. The New York City police are convinced that it is a case of suicide, the man having jumped from his balcony. Kevin knows it must be otherwise and sets out to prove it is murder. The case becomes more complicated when he learns Harrington is one of some six gay suicides in the last few months. Since he suffers from Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, Kevin has to make lists in order to keep focused – a device that keeps the reader also firmly oriented. The immediate suspects are Harrington’s two sons: Paul, married to a woman but obviously closeted, and the older and single Michael, head of a sexual-conversion therapy group. But they are only two of several possibilities.
Of course, it helps Kevin that the officer on the scene just happens to be his teenage sweetheart, Tony Rinaldi. They had broken up when Tony decided he was straight and wanted a conventional marriage, but not long after they meet up at the murder scene the two are in bed. Tony seems willing finally to admit the truth about his sexuality. Now Kevin faces the dilemma: what will happen when he admits the truth about his occupation? Not that Tony is the only opportunity for romance in Kevin’s life. There are three other men who seem equally interested in him, without any of the hangups Tony has. Two of them are equally willing to help Kevin in his murder investigation.
Comic relief is provided by one of these friends, the irrepressible Freddy, an “African-American adopted son of a nice Jewish couple from Cleveland.” He allows that he “wouldn’t mind doing the Hardy Boys. That Shaun Cassidy had some back for a white boy.” And so he accompanies Kevin to several of his interviews, with predicable campy results. The major source of comedy, however, is provided by Kevin’s over-the-top mother. Convincing herself that her long-suffering husband is having an affair with their grossly overweight next-door neighbor (“a woman who needed to have her dresses made at Omar the Tentmaker’s”), Mrs. Connor moves out of their Long Island home and into her son’s tiny New York flat. She has no idea how he earns his money, but she is quite happy to think that he and Tony have gotten back together. Kevin works as hard to get his mother to return home as he does to identify Harrington’s killer. Sherman is definitely an author to keep one’s eye on.
THE FISHER BOY
Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95
Hardcover, 332 pp.
Provincetown seems lately to have become a trendy setting for murder mysteries. This latest begins with the disposal of a dead dog on the front steps of a house where a gay party is in progress and quickly escalates to the deadly slashing of one of the men attending the party. The locals suspect a newly arrived Christian right-wing group is behind the crimes, but Mark Winslow, the narrator, is not so sure. He is the one to discover the corpse, but since he had earlier been in an altercation with the victim, he flees the scene, fearful that he will become the number one suspect. Feeling guilty, especially as he had also had an unexpected sexual encounter with the victim just hours before he was killed, he begins sleuthing on his own. After a friend’s daughter is kidnaped and a deranged man attacks a security guard at a painter’s retrospective, Mark starts focusing on a fascist cult that has moved into the former artist compound located in Truro and seems to be the source of the mysterious panhandlers and petty thieves who have also shown up this summer. The story hurtles through several melodramatic encounters to an unexpected showdown in the harbor.
The recipient of much critical praise, this first novel is a complex work whose parts are in some ways greater than the whole. This same summer Mark is going through various shifts of identity. He has thrown over his Boston job to try to establish himself with a troop of improvisational actors. Illegitimate by birth, he discovers new information about his father. One of his fellow actors who is initially just a good sexual buddy begins to stir unexpected emotional responses. And somehow, never quite clear to me, the painting “The Fisher Boy,” done by a local gay artist around World War I, promises Mark some insight into his current situation. Even if the author occasionally falters, particularly in not providing that final unified insight on Mark’s part that I was hoping for, his masterful handling of language and his willingness to tackle complex themes in a murder mystery make the novel a joy to read, one that continues to resonate in the mind long after finishing it.
Neil S. Plakcy
Alyson Books, $14.95
Paperback, 303 pp.
This Honolulu case begins with the separate murders of a homeless man and a rooster. It escalates with the fire bombing of the headquarters of the Hawaii Marriage Project, an organization spearheading the fight to legalize gay and lesbian marriages in the state. There quickly follows a sniper attack at the group’s subsequent rally in a park. Since his supportive family members were endangered by the fire bombing, openly gay police detective Kimo Kanapa’aka demands the case be assigned to him. His attention quickly focuses on the homophobic activities of the Church of Adam and Eve. Meanwhile, he feels responsible for the gay teenager who helped him in an earlier case and who, as a result of coming out, has been permanently disowned by his father. And Kimo becomes more than a little attracted to Mike Riccardi, the fire inspector working a series of arson cases involving gay businesses. Though punctuated with one tense, dramatic incident after another, the case proceeds at a leisurely, enjoyable pace that gives the reader time to savor what is happening to the main character.
The third in the Mahu series (Mahu being the local slang for homosexual), the novel continues to chart Kimo’s exploration of his long-concealed sexuality and to celebrate Hawaii’s cultural diversity. Like the previous novels, it emphasizes the importance of family, both the ones we are born into and the ones we create. However, here more than before, the novel also takes on political, legal, social, and religious concerns of grave importance to all of us. And for the first time Kimo works within the system, interacting with other police officers, firefighters, and the larger community. All in all, he seems more comfortable in his own skin. This greater assurance and his resulting openness to others bode well for the future of the series.
THE RAPE OF GANYMEDE
John Peyton Cooke
Éditions Cuir Noir, $18.00
Paperback, 358 pp.
THE FALL OF LUCIFER
John Peyton Cooke
Éditions Cuir Noir, $18.00
Paperback, 344 pp.
New York City private investigator Greg Quaintance finally makes it into print. He was supposed to appear nearly a decade ago but ran into publisher’s problems. Though his setting is now dated (pay phones are common everywhere; the World Trade Towers cast their shadow), the plots are not. The Rape of Gandymede begins when lawyer David Loeb hires Quaintance to act as a go-between with Callie Blassingame. A former private investigator in Loeb’s employment has sold a story to the National Enquirer alleging singer Jimmy Gilbert sexually abused Callie’s teenage son, Jason. In return for a hefty payment Callie is supposed to deny the claims. Unfortunately, soon after Quaintance visits her, she is murdered, and Jason disappears from the family’s New Jersey compound. Fearing for the youth’s safety, Quaintance launches a search that takes him into the paths of a generally reprehensible cast of characters. The author is brave to take on complex issues of teenage sexuality and pederasty, but it is difficult to care about people whose lives are so incredibly messy. I also found the quasi-roman à clef references to be annoying. It seems gratuitous to make Gilbert a falsetto singer who yearns to protect young boys and who has gone through numerous face alterations and to introduce Ralph Reston as a former American president suffering both from Alzheimer’s and from his overly protective and plastic wife, Natalie Reston. Still, the novel has its moments.
The Fall of Lucifer is a much finer work. Dysfunctional families abound in both novels, and a son also disappears in Lucifer. Otherwise, the plots have little in common. Jared Foster has dropped out of medical school and become absorbed into the Manhattan goth culture of sex, drugs, and vampirism. After his friend Karel is found murdered, the blood completely drained from his body, Jared’s father asks Quaintance to find the young man. Four more murders, some similar in nature, occur in short order. During the resulting investigation, Quaintance meets a fascinating array of characters – some charming; some crazed – with whose lives Foster’s intersected. The noir element also continues; in both novels Quaintance gets himself into one narrow corner after another. He has come to the private investigation scene after being given an undesirable discharge from the Army with which he served in Desert Storm. As he explains, “General Sam Nunn said I was a threat to unit cohesion.” A striking man with a head he keeps shaven bald, he hooks up briefly with his “hairdresser” in Gandymede and, more satisfyingly, with New York Dectective Octavo Orjuedos in Lucifer. Cooke gives no indication on his website whether he intends to continue the series or not.
WEST END MURDERS
NeWest Press, $12.95
Paperback, 320 pp.
An unidentified member of a wide-reaching underground organization is singling out affluent gays in Vancouver’s West End to be killed execution style. It takes some time to discover why these particular five men have been assassinated, but straight RCMP Inspector Mark Coswell is convinced the ultimate target will be San Francisco’s gay mayor when he attends a Vancouver conference. There is a hint that the mastermind behind the killings, whom we see in action at the very beginning of the novel without learning his identity, is himself a severely twisted homosexual seeking to destroy what he cannot accept about himself. In an attempt to get inside the cop-wary gay community, Cowell sends Corporal Paul Blakemore, also straight, to work undercover as a gay man newly arrived to the city. Fortunately, in Blakemore’s earlier post (described in the previous novel, Murder in the Monahees), his assistant was Ernie Downs. Having decided to come out of the closet, Ernie has left the RCMP and now manages an art gallery in the West End. He readily agrees to advise Blakemore. As he says, “I’m a civilian now but I know this West End crowd and I’m one of them.” Indeed, his expertise proves to be crucial to solving the murders, and through him we get numerous glimpses of Vancouver’s gay district. But it is Coswell who dominates the action. His investigation takes him to San Francisco, where he is smitten with Captain Cindy Forsythe (and where he is mortified at his own naivete when he learns two leading sports figures, though closeted, are a couple). As in his earlier mystery, the author deliberately builds to an untidy, though still satisfying, ending.
OSCAR WILDE AND A GAME CALLED MURDER
Simon & Schuster (Touchstone Book), $14.00
Paperback, 398 pp.
Although Lord Alfred Douglas figures prominently in this second installment of the Oscar Wilde mysteries, it is a less gay work than the first. Not that the narrator, the straight Robert Sherrard, is reticent about recording Bosie’s very open flirtations with Oscar. Nor does Robert hesitate to report suspicions that Bosie’s brother, Lord Drumlanrig, is in a sexual relationship with Lord Rosebery. But nothing occurs in the course of the novel that would frighten the horses in the street. What we have, actually, is a good old-fashioned murder mystery, a cozy complete with maps and lists that invite the reader to play detective along with Oscar. The author is scrupulously honest with clues.
The game is afoot when Oscar Wilde proposes at a dinner meeting that each of the members of the Socrates Club and their guests write down the name of the person he would most like to murder. The idea is that the group will then guess who proposed the name and why. But any possibility of fun quickly evaporates when the names of three of the fourteen people present are listed, including Oscar, plus his wife. And then the people named start dying in the order in which their names were drawn. Oscar realizes that he must find the killer before his own name comes up, on Friday 13, 1892. Despite the urgency of the matter, his quips and aphorisms spill out at every turn. Since another one of the main characters is Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes fans get the added pleasure of an extended conceit that some of Oscar’s best lines become the source for dialogue Holmes will subsequently deliver in Doyle’s stories.
The novel is an incredible tour de force, blending the historical (ten of the fourteen main characters are actual people, drawn quite closely to biographical fact) and the imaginative. Yet it can be read with complete enjoyment by someone who knows nothing about the personages or the times – perhaps with more pleasure, indeed, since that reader will have a larger cast of characters to suspect! Still, for those in the historical know, it is feasting with panthers.
HIS NAME IS JOHN
Zumaya Boundless, $13.99
Paperback, 199 pp.
The author of the Dick Hardesty mysteries has taken a break to create a new series starring a psychic sleuth. Elliott Smith has had no hint that he possesses unusual powers till he wakes up in a hospital room, where he has landed as the result of an accident, He finds he is occupying the space with the ghost of a murdered man who died in ER at the time Elliott was admitted. The ghost knows only that he is named John. Feeling some vague sense of recognition and an even stronger sense of some weird kind of obligation, Elliott uses his pull with his brother-in-law, a Chicago police detective, to start a clandestine investigation. Fearing that everyone, including his new boyfriend, Steven Gutierrez, will think he’s crazy, especially when the ghost starts sharing his mind, he has to invent reasons he wants various pieces of knowledge and excuses for his actions. As always with a Dorien Grey mystery, the characters are more important than the plot. Though there are a number of unexpected twists, an astute reader will have put together the truth very early in the present case. I don’t particularly like psychic mysteries, but this one, told in the third person, beguiled me from the beginning.