From time to time I post about a particular writer, more or less as something crosses my path. Last weekend I was at a street fair in my city’s “gaybourhood” and came across some used books for sale from the gay community centre’s library. I noticed three by an author whom I’d enjoyed in the past and picked them up. For a buck a paperback, why not?
There were only four books in the Valentine and Clarisse series of mysteries. They are, probably in the wrong chronological order, Vermilion, Slate, Canary and Cobalt, and all four were published in the early 1980s. They are “gay mysteries”; Valentine is a handsome young gay man and Clarisse is his best girlfriend, and together they solve mysteries concerning gay people against a background of gay establishments, trophes, etc. Their principal virtue is that they are funny. Well, okay, they’re not fall down laughing tears streaming from the eyes wet yourself funny, but they are lighthearted and zany, if I can use that fine old word. They remind me of the Thin Man movies (not the book, particularly) about Nick and Nora Charles, originated by Dashiell Hammett, and the subsequent “lighthearted mystery comedy about zany married couple” sub-genre of mysteries exemplified by relatively little-known writers like Kelley Roos (Jeff and Haila Troy), Frances Crane (the Abbotts) and the Lockridges (Mr. and Mrs. North) and a bunch of movies and radio programs.
As mysteries per se, the books are — meh. The back cover of a paperback edition of one of the volumes features a review by “Newgate Callendar” from the New York Times. I’m not sure why the publishers felt they should include all of this review, since it was moderately unfavourable. Nevertheless I agree with “Callendar” that one or two of the actions in the books are motivated by nothing more than a desire to keep things moving in an amusing way and not based on logic or sense. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any logical motive for some of the things that happen, and some of the motivations that characters evince are — hard to understand and hard to believe. But they are generally funny. The protagonists are charming, the backgrounds are authentic, the characterizations are amusing, the plots are witty, if illogical.
The thing about these mysteries that interested me in the 30-year interval since their publication is that they are, however inadvertently, a portrait of American gay society immediately before AIDS. In what I believe is the last of the four, it is mentioned that a social event is being held as a charity fund-raiser for an AIDS charity. As far as I know, that’s the only mention of AIDS, which actually killed both the gay men who were writing as “Nathan Aldyne” (and probably why the series stopped, although one died in ’87 and the other in the late 90s). I lived through that period as an actively gay man, and it is sometimes difficult to explain to people of a younger generation that, yes, it was possible to have sex as often and as randomly as we did. That bars and steambaths and the like were cornucopias of sexuality, freely available and generously given. (At one point in one novel, a young man has sex with someone whom he finds relatively unattractive because he feels it is expected of him, as kind of an “end to the evening” thing.) Gay men looked and acted in the ways that are shown in these novels, and were motivated by the things by which they are shown to be motivated. It’s not an enormously important social document, but to me it was an interesting one.
The first editions are ferociously expensive; even the 1980s paperbacks are pricey. But a gay press republished the books in trade editions more recently, and you will find these relatively easy to acquire, and inexpensively so. If you are interested in the social fabric of gay society immediately before it was ruined by AIDS, these will be a worthwhile read.