Shock To The System - Richard Stevenson
A Donald Strachey Mystery #5

Ladymol's Review

I think you’ll probably know by now that Cerisaye and I really love these books. Each one stands up as an excellent story in its own right whist keeping the characters Donald and his lover Timmy totally authentic throughout the whole series.

Don and Timmy have been together for 19 years now and they are so close that Don can actually smell Timmy’s sweet breath over the telephone when they are talking. Timmy is his confidant, his conscience, and his sounding board. And he needs all of these in this complex mystery. Hired by three different people each with a motive to have the apparent suicide of a young man investigated, he suddenly finds himself sacked by all three too. What do they have to hide and what could they possibly have in common that leads them to be so intricately tied up with this despairing young gay man?

Phyllis Haig is his mother: a bitter, chain-smoking alcoholic who despised Paul’s sexual preferences whilst encouraging his drunkenness. Larry Bierly is Paul’s sometime lover and business partner. Dr Crockwell was their psychotherapist, a pseudo-doctor specialising in the radical treatment of sexuality depravity—ie, the gay lifestyle. Phyllis forced her son to attend Dr Crockwell’s clinic, where he met Larry. They absconded together and threatened Dr Crockwell, a threat he seems to have returned full measure. Beneath this tangled web is a deep, darker secret that Donald has to untangle.

Throughout the novel, Don displays his own unique brand of morality, often using the very tactics the criminals use—just for better ends. He believes that the end justify the means, something his ex-Jesuit lover, Timmy, cannot or will not accept.

There are three more books in this series, and I’ve just ordered them all. I can’t wait to enter Donald’s world again.

Cerisaye's Review

Did Paul Haig kill himself?  Or is his mother, Phyllis, right that her son was murdered by Larry Bierly, for his money?  Phyllis wants to hire Donald Strachey to find out.  She’s a tough old biddy, an alcoholic, and a chronic liar.  And she’s also homophobic and totally obnoxious.  Don isn’t impressed.

When Don approaches Larry for his side of the story, Bierly asks if he’ll take HIM on as a client, because he knows who really killed the man Larry says was the love of his life.  He points the finger at Vernon Crockwell, controversial psychologist.  Larry and Paul met while attending Crockwell’s programme to ‘de-queer’ homosexuals. Don’s instincts tell him Larry isn’t telling the whole story.

So Don has a case and two potential clients, neither of whom he trusts.  But money is money, as long-time companion, Timothy Callahan, points out, and the mortgage is due to be paid soon.  There’s definite proof even after 19 years, the flame of their passion hasn’t gone out.  Don & Timmy’s relationship has matured nicely into something like the ideal male partnership.  They stay together not because it’s familiar and easy but because they’re in love.  Affection and intimacy revealed through everyday interaction.

Don’s next move is a chat with Vernon Crockwell.  Interesting, given that Don is an ‘unrepentant homosexual’ and Crockwell takes money from conflicted gay men, to turn them straight.  Through rigorous application of electro aversion therapy, a barbaric form of torture, familiar if you’ve seen LATTER DAYS.  Imagine Don’s surprise then, when Vernon says HE wants to hire the gay and proud P.I to clear his name.

The plot thickens when Larry is attacked and the police receive an anonymous tip-off implicating Vernon, in both cases. The only thing Don knows for sure is that Paul Haig’s death was suspicious and Larry Bierly and Vernon Crockwell are somehow involved.  He’s got three clients wanting to hire him, each with their own agenda. 

At home, Timmy counsels Don to see the big picture, which isn’t easy when he’s stumbling around in the dark, in a mess of guilt, secrets and lies.  His investigation focuses on Crockwell’s therapy group, successful graduates ‘certified heterosexual’.  Like Dean, who sued his parents because he turned out gay, and thinks gays should be locked away in state mental hospitals.  Roland, who believes homosexuals who don’t repent should either be stoned or thrown over a cliff.  Both of whom get their kicks together wired up to a Lustbuster, looking at gay porn.  Gene, whose wife keeps him on a short leash, and says he’s straightened out but sits pulling out clumps of hair.  And Grey Oliveira, who calls Don as gay in a nanosecond, because of the way he stares into his melting bedroom eyes.  Grey thinks he’s got it sussed: a wife at home for love, and a boyfriend as f***kbuddy. 

I’m right behind Don’s righteous anger that a quack like Crockwell is allowed to take advantage of vulnerable and damaged men, all trying to accept a lie.  How could Phyllis collude with a bigot like Vernon against her son Paul, who only wanted love and acceptance?  Nurture made him an alcoholic and a liar, but nature made him gay, and no amount of de-programming was going to alter that.

Crockwell is a charlatan, but is he a murderer?  Why is Larry so afraid of him?  And who is the fragrant Steven, who reminds Don of his crush on Lady Chatterley’s Mellors?  Don cracks the case, and justice is done.  The happiest couple of graduates from Vernon’s loathsome programme, Monroe & Tidlow, found true love, and, together with Don & Timmy, prove the lie that gay men can’t be happy and have lasting relationships.  But only if they accept who they are.  Highly recommended.

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