Death Trick - Richard Stevenson (A Don Strachey Novel)
This is the first in a series of eight novels about the gay detective Donald Strachey. There will be a great deal of interest in this series soon, as it’s being made into a TV series in the States. More about that later.
Don is a great creation. If an author is going to make eight first-person novels, he’d better get his hero’s voice right. Stevenson certainly does. Don is pretty much perfect—in that he’s very flawed and knows it. He was married but is now in a loving relationship with a man, Timmy. However (and this is where this novel gets interesting) this is 1979. I don’t need to say that this is pre-AIDS. Loving relationships don’t preclude a considerable amount of “playing away from home”. They both do it with wry, guilty confessions afterward, and you love them the more for it.
Don is hired by the parents of a young man, Billy, suspected of murder to find him and bring him “home” so they can help him. They hire Don because of his contacts—he’s gay; Billy is gay, and they know he will have access to places and people that the police won’t.
The more Don digs into the case, the more worms he uncovers. Needless to say, things are not what they seem.
The sex isn’t really graphic except for one surprising encounter. I was quite puzzled by this because with all these wonderful gay men around for his character to have sex with, the author choose to pair him off with a transvestite—one who is so good he actually passes quite successfully as a women, albeit a very flamboyant, movie-star type of one. The sex between Don and “Harold” is amazingly graphic and although I didn’t find this incongruous exactly, I did wonder if the author somehow felt that for his first book, he was better off sticking to “almost” heterosexual sex. Odd. But actually the scene is very hot, and a great deal of Donald’s character (for the better) is captured in it.
The novel is just totally readable, and as I’m reading two other novels at the same time that are so boring I force myself to do a page a night, this one came like sweet rain to a parched earth.
I got the second one, On the Other Hand, Death today, and I’m already halfway through it. I’ve got the third, Ice Blues, waiting after that. I’m really going to enjoy this series.
So, it was with great pleasure that I heard that this series had been picked up for a TV series. It’s going to star Chad Allen (Dr Quinn Medicine Woman?). I’ll reserve judgement. But Chad Allen is just not Donald Strachey for me. Donald is presented as an ex-Army intelligence hard man. He was straight and married for a number of years until he “came out”. He’s still very much a man’s man. I’ll probably get shot down in flames for saying this, but isn’t the success of shows like QaF that the main gay characters are actually played by straight men? Would Brokeback Mountain be so eagerly awaited if we knew the two lead actors were openly gay? Perhaps this is very much where gay men and “women who like gay men” part company. I want my man/man sex to appear to be between two straight men, if that makes sense. Hence the books I’ve tended to really enjoy: As Meat Loves Salt, The Dakota Taylor Series, all Jack Anderson novels—there’s not a “queer” character in any of them, just men who love other men. I can’t see Chad Allen pulling this off. However, I refused to believe that Tom Cruise could be Lestat and had to eat my hat and several other things I don’t normally eat when I lost that particular bet. He was Lestat. Perhaps Chad will be Donald. I certainly hope so because I’m really, really enjoying these novels.
This novel is the first in a series about gay private eye Donald Strachey, currently being filmed for US TV. Okay it’s not network, but to showcase a gay man in such a traditionally macho role is real progress. Admittedly the actor they’ve cast in the role isn’t at all my mental image of Strachey, but you can’t have everything I suppose.
40 year-old Strachey is sardonic, down to earth, impulsive and irreverent. He looks like a young Robert Mitchum, a real man. He has a conscience, and works with gay activist organisations in Albany, New York where the books are set. It’s 1980. Interesting to see how attitudes have changed over 25 years. Don isn’t like Joseph Hansen’s groundbreaking gay PI Dave Branstetter. He’s more overtly gay, less cultured, not as uptight, more everygayman. His background is US military intelligence. Boyfriend, Timmy makes him eat properly and have a life outside his job. Timmy is as interesting as Don. Jesuit trained, he’s a government lawyer, helps his lover on the case and niggles him about his attitude to promiscuity. Their relationship develops nicely in the novel.
Strachey is hired to find Billy Blount by his concerned parents. Billy is wanted by the local police for the brutal slaying of another man. Both Billy and the victim are gay. Blount’s patrician parents make no secret of the fact they’ve called in Strachey because of his entrée into Billy’s world, and they’re right. Strachey is happy to take their money then uses it to support gay causes. Local cops, traditional and homophobic, don’t take kindly to Strachey’s interference. He approaches the case from a different angle. Talks to Billy’s friends to build a picture of the man, and decides he likes what he hears. He reckons Billy is probably innocent, which means the killer is at large, threatening others like Billy and his friends.
Don digs into Billy’s background. The Blounts can’t accept their only child’s sexuality. Billy was active with defunct extremist activist group Forces of Free Faggotry. Why is obvious, when boys caught loving other boys were put into mental hospitals for ‘social adjustment’, i.e. shock treatment and punishment, and ‘Consensual sodomy’ between adults in NY state carries a 3 month prison sentence. Gay issues add depth to a tightly plotted mystery novel that’s also very funny, especially Don & Timmy’s exchanges and Strachey’s inner musings on love and gay life.
Strachey goes to clubs & bars with Timmy. He’s attracted to other guys. He’s vain enough to pull first grey hairs from that obligatory 80s gay identity moustache. Don and Timmy have sex off-page. He gets felt up by a drag queen he questions, then it gets graphic. His determination extends to using even the vulnerable, so he’s no plaster saint. Billy Blount had the balls to come out as a teen, while Don was married until 3 years before and appears hesitant to move in with Timmy, so he’s got issues. This is all pre-AIDS, the golden era of post-Stonewall gay lib. Strachey worries about being unfaithful, but not about his health. It’s a way of life, that’s gone, bath houses and all.
The potent mix of detective thriller, gay politics and a convincing gay relationship makes for a good quick read, building to an exciting climax. Don Strachey is a worthy gay detective hero, a positive role model, but very human. I’m glad LadyM bought the first three together. Highly recommended.