Friday, November 17, 2006

Book Review: Hunter, Gay Mystery Novels

Fred Hunter
  • Ransom For Our Sins (1996; the 3rd Jeremy Ransom/Emily Charters mystery)
  • Government Gay (1998; the 1st Alex Jennings mystery)
  • National Nancies (2001; the 4th Alex Jennings mystery)

Reviewed by Jim Benton

There is nothing new about gay or lesbian detective story writers. They've been around since the very beginning of American mystery stories. To mention a few names, Patricia Cornwell, Cornell Wollrich/William Irish, and Stanton Forbes are all both worth knowing and gay. In fact, "S.S. VanDine" (Willard Huntington Wright) who was arguably the first important American detective story writer since Poe, and the first to establish the American Mystery Story as a respectable genre, was also, reportedly, a 'classic' intellectual/aesthete queen type. Certainly his detective, Philo Vance, was (despite a mention of a passing and not really believable hetero romance in a couple of the later books).

But the 'gay detective story' written, usually, by gay men with a main character who is openly and unashamedly gay (whether he is an amateur investigator, a policeman, or a professional investigator) is much newer. (The lesbian detective story deserves to be discussed separately. Most of the gay detective books have been published by mainstream publishers and because of this have had a certain professionalism to them. Lesbian counterparts have, in the past, more frequently been published by specialty publishers, sometimes semi-self published. Hopefully I will discuss this topic in a future $.99 post.)

The field began with Joseph Hansen's Dave Brandstetter books. There has been some criticism of them as being a little too earnest and humorless, but the idea of a someone being a semi-tough Private Eye (technically an insurance investigator) and a gay man with a settled life was a major breakthrough. The early books had gay-related themes, but the later ones were more varied. They had their flaws, but the twelve books in the Brandstetter series (and Hansen's few non-series works) are still worth looking for.

Hansen's work broke the ice, and mainstream publishers found a substantial market for gay mystery stories. While some writers started out in specialty houses for the gay market, most of the major writers in the sub-field were quickly picked up by the mass market. (In an interesting cross-over, St. Martin's produced a line of "Stonewall Inn Mysteries" in large-sized paperback that included originals and reprints of some of the better writers in the field.)

There are over a dozen main series available, ranging the genre from police procedurals to at least one 'hard-boiled private eye' (Richard Stevenson's Donald Strachey, who has appeared in seven novels -- unfortunately, of the three I've read, only the second, On the Other Hand, Death is worth looking for.) Most of the series tend to feature amateur detectives, ranging from the campy hairdresser of Grant Michaels' Stan Kraychick novels to the serious and well-drawn Chicano lawyer of Michael Nava's Henry Rios books.

Interestingly enough, the books' settings are scattered throughout America, but, except for the Provincetown-located Valentine and Lovelace books by Nathan Aldyne (enjoyable but very lightweight) none of them are located in what most people would think of as gay settings. Rios opens his career in San Francisco but moves to Los Angeles, and the others are set in places such as Albany (the Stevenson books), Minneapolis (R.D. Zimmerman's Todd Mills books), Boston (the Kraychick books, I believe -- two of them are on my to read pile) and no less than four series in Chicago, two each by Mark Richard Zubro (my own favorites of those I have read -- I have yet to read Nava) and the two by Fred Hunter that -- at last -- I am getting around to reviewing: the Jeffrey Ransom series of police procedurals and the wildly funny Alex Jennings mystery/espionage series.

There have been at least nine books featuring Jeffrey Ransom and his 'adopted grandmother', Emily Charters. They are police procedurals, but much more in the English mode, with the policeman and his assistant (in this case Gerald White) more or less on their own in solving the case. Emily Charters, who, from description, is more of a presence in the other books, is limited to minor appearances and suggestions in this book because she is recovering from bypass surgery.

Ransom For Our Sins has whetted my appetite for the other books in the series, but, in all honestly, I have to call it a 'good bad book'. Hunter's strengths here are in the writing, descriptions, and particularly the characters. All of them come alive, and it is particularly gratifying to see characters that could easily be flat clich├ęs -- the leader and other members of a religious 'community' ("we prefer to call it that, not a church") -- become fully three-dimensional. Ransom himself is an engaging eccentric. Surprisingly, while there are repeated statements and reactions that show he is almost certainly gay, and open to and accepted as such by his partner, it is never explicitly stated. Certainly he's never shown with sexual reactions or desires, and he seems to spend most evenings at his hobby of reading Dickens in the bathtub. (He had accompanied this with cigars, but he is attempting to give them up as the book begins.)

I want to spend more time with Jeffrey Ransom, but I hope that Hunter has learned to avoid the flaws that seriously affect this book. One is that because his plot requires a slow build and investigation, one which would have been ruined by the presence of the media, he simply writes any public notice of the crimes out of the book, a serious blow to the 'suspension of disbelief.' It is conceivable that some murders would get overlooked -- though most of them do get some notice in the news in most cities -- but when the first body is shown to have been 'crucified' -- in fact, not hung on a cross, but with the hands and feet pierced with nails -- and when another body is discovered in the same condition, it is simply inconceivable that the press would not have made it a major story. This is one flaw, and the second is that when the murderer is, in fact, revealed, no satisfactory reason is given for the crucifixions. Again, a 'good bad book' but if you find it, one worth picking up.

The Alex Jennings books -- there have been at least five so far -- are as different from the Ransoms as two series can be from the same writer, and these can be recommended with no qualms except for the titles. These are 'gay' books in both meanings of the term. The lead character and narrator is openly gay, and they are simply a lot of joyous fun. They come closer to espionage fiction involving a mystery than straight detective stories, and the first book's title is a homage to the movie Government Girl, -- no I don't know it, but the other movie that is echoed, North by Northwest, everyone knows.

Alex Jennings is a graphic designer who lives with his husband, Peter Livesay ("He calls me that, too.") in Alex's very British, very rich, mother's Chicago townhouse. ("Peter and I are so happily married we even disgust ourselves." It's true, and one of the nicer touches. Again, Hunter's characterizations are excellent, with both Alex and mother Jean being two of the more delightful people I've come across in the pages of mysteries.)

Government Gay starts with Alex wandering into a gay bar simply to kill time while his mother attends a meeting, having a brief conversation with a character he meets there, giving him a cigarette, going into the mens' room, and immediately being set upon by two hulking characters (the 'clay people' as Alex calls them) asking him 'where is it, we saw him talking to you'. Alex tries to explain he doesn't know what they are talking about, and gets whacked rather substantially until the goons are interrupted. And off we go...

The rest is a wild, funny, somewhat deadly series of adventures and misadventures involving the CIA, the 'clay people', various false identities and mysterious meetings, a couple of corpses, all told in a light, campy style. (A couple of critics have complained about this, but I find it a gay twist on the sort of lightness that was so common in American "Silver Age" authors from George Bagby through Stuart Palmer to Phoebe Atwood Taylor. Too many present-day mysteries are totally humorless, or else nearer to classic screwball comedies. This is simply light and funny and much appreciated.) The plot is good, solid, and somewhat surprising, and the ending is worthy of the Hitchcockian model, with Alex clinging to a scaffold on the top of the Sears Tower.

But the fourth book in the series, National Nancies, is, despite the title, by far the best of the books reviewed here. A true mystery, though with a minor bit of CIA involvement -- one result of the first book is that Alex is frequently requested to lend his services to that agency -- and a solid political novel, made even more pointed by some of the events of the last election. Alex, though usually non-political, has been dragged into volunteering for a liberal, gay-friendly Senatorial candidate involved in an easy primary before a difficult general election against a bigoted, homophobic Republican. The campaign has been receiving vitriolic phone calls and almost daily bomb threats.

Only one morning, at 5:00, the threats turn real as a bomb destroys the campaign headquarters, in the process killing the universally disliked and somewhat fanatical lesbian office manager. Was it a fanatic, a 'mole' in the office, or was the bomb meant to do what it did and kill the victim? Off the spouses and mom go, sleuthing and 'playing spy' again, though with the slight distraction of a new romance that mother Jean is apparently getting involved in -- and Alex's reaction to this is a priceless extra to a magnificent book.

The plot is solid, the scenes are excellent, the solution is a good one: all in all, a book that is enjoyable by anyone, regardless of orientation (and if I haven't mentioned my own, I am a predominantly straight bisexual). And there are moments of pure brilliance, from an opening scene where the candidate shows the proper response to rumors that he is gay (if only I had read this a week before instead of two days after the election, I might have e-mailed the passage to a number of campaigns) to an ending two scenes -- after the solution -- that are both totally unexpected and absolutely perfectly done.

Definitely, if you happen upon National Nancies, grab a copy -- even if you have to put it in a brown paper wrapper.

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Anonymous pablo said...

Excellent post. Thanks for this information. I'll be looking for some of these.

17 November, 2006 13:39  

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