Amsterdam. Summer 1995.
I’m homeless, living in my jeep with my dog. (Long story, not so interesting.) Early one sunny morning in Vondelpark, we run into a crowd gathered behind crime scene tape that surrounds a pond by the rose gardens. (Infamous gay cruising spot – still is.) Police everywhere, divers in the water. I ask some guy what’s going on. He tells me, and it’s not pretty. Not first thing in the morning, not anytime. Take my word for it. But what he tells me will inspire a book. My first. The one I’m trying to get published. About a murder.
Four top US indie publishers recently got together and declared June International Crime Month. Okay. The Crime Writers Association in the UK initiated National Crime Writing Week in 2010. It proved so popular they extended it to a month – also June. Well, the Dutch have been celebrating Thriller Month (Maand van het Spannende Boek) for 25 years now. Leave it to the Dutch to come up with a good marketing ploy. When best to target the beach-reading genre of choice? June, of course. The beginning of summer.
Crimes feature in stories as long as we’ve been telling them. Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, Dickens and Poe. As a kid I devoured Agatha Christie mysteries. My favorite was And Then There Were None. Ten people on an island, getting knocked off one by one. A twist at the end so unexpected that one friend threw his copy out the window in fury for being so cruelly misled. I never stopped reading crime fiction. But since I’m writing my own, I’m thinking about gay crime novels that have given me as much inspiration as pleasure.
Imaginary Bad Boyfriend
Top of my list is the three-time Lambda Literary Award winning Justice series by John Morgan Wilson. In the late 90s I fall head-over-heels in love with Benjamin Justice. The guilt-ridden, self-destructive, disgraced journalist is my perfect imaginary bad boyfriend. He makes wrong choices, sleeps with suspects, and still manages to solve the complicated cases he gets himself involved in. Each book is darker than the last (and Benjamin starts off in a very dark place). Yet with each book I care about him more and more. Maybe because I’m a just few years older than him, have gone through some of the same angst he’s experiencing.
“I’ve heard that turning forty is the hardest passage for men. It’s such a clear demarcation point in the average male life span – youth gone, middle age looming, physical powers and youthful passion waning, dreams unrealized and starting to feel dishearteningly elusive, while the reality and finality of death begin to insinuate themselves on the consciousness now that the years seem to pass so much more swiftly.” – from Justice at Risk (2000)
The Justice series ended in 2008. Damn. As I type that, a pang of sadness hits me. As if Benjamin died. Happily for future readers, he lives on. In 2008 LGBTQ publisher Bold Strokes Books reissued both print and eBook editions of the first four Justice novels. Maybe the last four will resurface as well, for the next generation of readers with a weakness for bad boyfriends.
Bold Strokes publishes two other Lambda Award crime authors I’ve read and enjoyed: Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann. Steamy, colorful, gritty New Orleans (a city I love) is the setting for both their series. Tough wisecracking private investigator Chanse Macleod won Herren a 2007 Lambda Award for Murder in the Rue Chartres. Redmann is another three-time winner for her series featuring equally tough lesbian PI Micky Knight. I had the pleasure of meeting the talented Ms. Redmann after her first win for The Intersection of Law and Desire in 1995. She took this year’s Lesbian Mystery Award for Ill Will, her seventh in the series. I have some catching up to do.
But next on my to-read list is this year’s Gay Mystery Award winner from Toronto. Lake on the Mountain by Canadian Jeffrey Round is the first in a promising new series. Dan Sharp is a troubled investigator of missing person cases. I hear the story is driven by a strong psychological element, not to mention plenty of sex. Right up my literary alley. It should arrive any day now.
Murder in Black & White
If I seem hung up on Lambda Literary Awards it’s because their 25th annual honors were just handed out on June 3rd in New York City. I followed the event via Twitter (Queer literature doesn’t get the big TV treatment reserved for Oscars or Tonys, not yet anyway.) Edmund White presented the Bridge Builder Award to John Irving, and I fondly remember interviewing both of them. Just a year ago I read they were good friends. I wander further down Memory Lane, find a list of previous winners.
1997. Best Gay Men’s Mystery. The Magician’s Tale by David Hunt.
The story comes rushing back to me in a New York minute. Or a San Francisco minute, I should say. The black & white world of street hustlers seen through the lens of a color-blind photographer. A brutal murder, a murky past, a magic act, a missing twin. How have I forgotten this visually poetic work of crime fiction? Or have I? Read between visits from brooding Benjamin, the period my own story begins to develop, I can see that these dark narratives wove their mysterious threads into my subconscious, remained hidden. Until I needed them. I hope I’ve done them justice (so to speak.) Only time will tell. Or a publisher.
Further Reading Recommendations:
Gunnshots: Celebrating Great Gay Mysteries, Lambda Literary Foundation
Groundbreaking Gay Mystery Series Finally Comes to eBook, Kergan Edwards-Stout