Third Man Out - Richard Stevenson (A Don Strachey novel)

Ladymol's Review

Well, this one kept me guessing to the very end—who did it, was it actually done…. A great crime detective read and that it’s Don Strachey just about makes it perfect. This book is the fourth in the Don Strachey series and probably the most involved in gay rights. A leading gay activist is shot and hires Don to protect him. Don is confused by his reaction to this man and his campaign, because the man has dedicated himself to outing closeted gays—particularly the ones who are homophobic in public, but also those just living quiet lives who prefer not to discuss their sexuality. John believes that not to admit you are gay harms all gays, because straight people need to see just how many people are gay and from how many walks of life. I find the whole debate raised in the novel fascinating because although the issues are 20 years old now, they are still just as relevant.

Only today, Cerisaye sent me this:

School district cancels gay author event
     Larry Buhl, PlanetOut Network
     Friday, March 4, 2005 / 05:20 PM
SUMMARY: Officials in a Virginia school system cancelled the appearance of a
gay fiction writer after some parents charged that he would not be a
suitable guest for high school students.

Officials at the Chesterfield school system near Richmond, Va., cancelled
the appearance of a gay fiction writer after an e-mail message from a
conservative group convinced some parents that he would not be a suitable
guest for high school students.

Greg Herren, primarily known for mystery novels featuring gay heroes, was
invited to speak about his work and his career on March 11 at Manchester
High School. But when an anonymous e-mail from the American Family
Association was circulated to Manchester High parents and others, plans
unraveled in only two days. Herren's lecture series was quickly rescheduled
to after-school hours, then finally cancelled.

In a statement released by the Chesterfield school district, Herren's
appearance would be "inappropriate for high school students."

A Chesterfield resident who protested Herren's visit after receiving the
e-mail said, "There are plenty of avenues for folks with this particular
opinion or position to express their First Amendment rights, but I don't
believe a public school is the proper avenue without input from parents."

But Eric Russell, faculty adviser for Manchester's gay-straight alliance
(GSA), said the e-mail's suggestion that Herron would indoctrinate students
in "gay pride activist" issues is ludicrous.

"Greg did not intend to speak about anything inappropriate or controversial.
He was going to talk about his experience at writing and being a journalist,
things any writer would discuss as a guest speaker," Russell said.

"The whole controversy was started from some very vocal people, some from
outside the district. All they think is, 'Gay man coming to talk to gay
students -- how dare he?'" said Russell, who invited Herren to speak.

A longtime fan of Herren's work, Russell was miffed by other inaccuracies in
the e-mail, such as the suggestion that Herren would sell autographed copies
of pornographic novels to students.

"I sent out an e-mail to faculty members inviting them to hear him speak,
and inviting them to buy signed copies of Greg's books. The signed books
were only for faculty to buy, not students, and his novels aren't
pornographic anyway."

Herren, who admits he has written short stories containing gay erotica for
anthologies, refuted the e-mail's contention that his novels are

"Despite the stupidity of the circulating e-mail and its inaccuracies, the
thing that bothers me the most about this situation is that I was never
given an opportunity by the school board or the superintendent to express my
opinions, nor was I asked what I was planning to talk about," Herren said.

"What was further insulting to me was the insinuation that, as a gay man, I
am either too stupid or too perverted to know what is appropriate or
inappropriate to talk to high school students about. If the superintendent
and the 'concerned parents' had read my work and then decided I was not an
appropriate speaker, I would gladly let the matter drop. But I am terribly
resentful that the entire reason I was dropped was because a group of
homophobes -- without reading anything I've ever written, based on a bio
that does not remotely come close to covering everything I've written --
concluded that I was a 'danger.'"

Russell said that, although the district caved in, Manchester school
administrators have been supportive of Herren, the GSA and gay and lesbian
issues in general. And he pointed to others in the community who have
stepped forward to offer a counterprotest of the district's actions. The
local MCC invited Herren to speak on the same date at their church, and a
local businessman offered to pay for Herren to fly from New Orleans to

Herren, 43, has published novels including "Murder in the Rue Dauphine,"
"Bourbon Street Blues" and "Jackson Square Jazz." He has also written for
the Lambda Book Report and the Washington Blade.

What can you say about such ignorant bigotry (well, beside rush out and by his books just as a show of support).

I work in a homophobic organisation that has been forced to accept gays because of government legislation. But if you can describe an organisation as institutionally racist, you can describe one as institutionally homophobic—mine is. I know I work with many people who can never declare or discuss their partners. Would it benefit anyone if they were forcibly outed? Well, I suppose some of the homophobes would be shocked by how many there were in what high positions. It might make it easier for younger people to come out…. But the damage it would do to them and their families (elderly parents who don’t know they are gay) is surely the main thing that should be taken into consideration.

So, as I say, a very thought-provoking book. It doesn’t help that John is physically perfect, but morally corrupt—a pathological liar for a start. Don just doesn’t like him. He gets a headache every time he talks to him, so eventually he returns his retainer and quits.

From that moment on he is pulled more and more into the morally dubious world that John inhabited. John’s files, in which he’s logged the activities of these closet gays, fall into Don’s hands. He has almost the power of life and death over these men. He doesn’t use it to out them but to try and solve the case. Blackmail is blackmail though, and he doesn’t like the morally corrupt way he’s been forced into acting.

Added to all this is a friend in the hospital, brain-dead from AIDS, who didn’t get around to making his partner his legal next-of-kin. Stu’s parents don’t believe he’s brain dead and insist on keeping him artificially alive, a torment that his lover Mike has no say in. Mike asks Don for help—all he needs when he’s beginning to lose the distinction between right and wrong.

The twists in this book are genuinely startling, and I’m usually one of those people that guesses the ending long before it comes.

I’ve already started the next novel “Shock to the System”. I can’t recommend these books too highly.

Cerisaye's Review

The fourth Donald Strachey mystery more than lives up to earlier books in the series.  This one asks tough questions and gives no easy answers.  Do the ends ever justify the means?  Don is forced to adopt heavy handed and morally dubious methods to solve his latest case.  As ever, faithful Timmy Callahan is on hand to guard his lover’s conscience.

John Rutka is shot in the foot.   After death threats from at least nine men.  He’s scared.  Asks Don for protection.  Trouble is he gives Strachey a permanent headache.  A Queer Nation activist engaged in a campaign to out prominent closeted gays, Rutka isn't going to win any popularity contests within gay Albany.  And Don Strachey isn't impressed, despite Rutka's Byronic good looks.

Don isn’t averse to a spot of gay activism, provided it doesn’t jeopardise his PI licence.  But he doesn’t approve of Rutka’s methods. If a man is in the closet, it's because that's his choice.  No one has a right to drag him out into the glare of homophobia.  Don knows about living in denial.  Rutka is self-righteous and angry.  He’s on a quest to expose phonies and hypocrites who hide in the shadows full of self-loathing, or adopt the disguise of homophobes who ensure passage of antigay policies.

Timmy doesn't approve of Don taking the case.  Exposing liars and hypocrites feeds homophobic prejudices, while outed celebrities become pathetic victims.  Don says the goal is straight America's casual acceptance of gays.  If some people get hurt that's necessary evil.  Timmy, as always, occupies the moral high ground.  Though right now he’s on a rather sticky wicket in that regard, due to a small lapse.

Rutka’s house is firebombed, and a witness identifies Rutka’s partner, Eddie, as being in the vicinity. Police Chief Bailey says Rutka is a pathological liar with a history of criminal arrests.  Don can’t trust his client.  He goes too far, hurts the innocent and harms the cause.  So Don resigns from the case, convinced it’s a publicity stunt.  But his headache doesn’t go away, and before long he’s back on the job.   Forced to use situational ethics to unravel a dangerously complex tangle of deception and cover-up.  

Rutka has a network of informants, and he keeps detailed files on all ‘known homosexuals’- the McCarthy parallel is deliberate. That gays inform on each other is just another aspect of fear and self-loathing, classic internalised homophobia. Rutka outed senatorial aide Bruno Slinger, iinvolved with TV weatherman Ronnie Linkletter, also exposed. Who did Ronnie meet once a week  for a year in the sleazy Fountain of Eden motel?  The so-called Third Man.

To track down this dangerous individual, Don lies to people, bullies them, invades their privacy, just like Rutka.  He’s sick of the case, and sick in his heart.  Friends are dying of AIDS, including Stu, longterm lover of Mike, trapped in a vegetative state in hospital.  Mike wants to end Stu’s suffering, but as a same-sex partner he is powerless to overturn the parents’ refusal to turn off equipment keeping Stu’s body in a living death.  He wants Don to help him.  Euthanasia is controversial.  Stevenson handles it with great sensitivity. Killing a lover is as intimate as two people can be.  Stevenson effectively contrasts damaging self-hate in gay men who sell each other for money, with the abiding love of Mike & Stu.  It’s powerful writing well above the norm for detective fiction.

I really liked this book.  As usual with Stevenson, it blends exciting mystery with gay issues to make a very satisfying story.  I would have liked more focus on Don & Timmy, but that’s a quibble.  Born out of love for both characters.  The Strachey books are now my favourite mystery series.  Very highly recommended.


Published by St Martin's Press. ISBN: 0312302142

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