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literature

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Mystery Fiction: Gay Male  
 
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In the course of the series, Justice begins to rehabilitate his life and career by investigating murders (primarily of gay men), which leads him into the seamier crevices of the Hollywood subculture.

The books are flawed, however; Justice is stupidly reckless in a milieu ravaged by AIDS, and the plotting is frequently so obvious that the reader solves the crimes long before he does. But the writing is superb, and the probings into the darker aspects of human nature and behavior are profound. The novels finally surmount their shortcomings to become genuinely disturbing explorations of a bleak existence.

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Lev Raphael's Exploitation of Academia

Much less successful is Lev Raphael's Nick Hoffman series, set in the world of academia: Let's Get Criminal (1996), The Edith Wharton Murders (1997), The Death of a Constant Lover (1999), Little Miss Evil (2000), Burning Down the House (2001), Tropic of Murder (2004), and Hot Rocks (2006). Hoffman is an English professor and his lover Stefan Borowski is writer-in-residence at the State University of Michigan (based on Michigan State University), where most of the crimes in the series occur.

The university community has afforded rich settings for many straight mystery novels but in Raphael's books it is mainly an excuse for interminable bitching about academic politics and hypocrisy, and his barbs are so indiscriminate and disproportionate that they overpower what could be a thoughtful exploration of modern university life. In addition, his plots are so filled with likely suspects and his solutions so arbitrary that they fail as satisfying mysteries.

The Mystery as Serious Novel: Michael Nava's Henry Rios Series

By far the best recent series of gay mystery novels is that by five-time Lambda Award winner Michael Nava: The Little Death (1986), Goldenboy (1988), How Town (1990), The Hidden Law (1992), The Death of Friends (1996), The Burning Plain (1998), and Rag and Bone (2001). Nava's protagonist is Henry Rios, a gay Mexican-American lawyer who practices first in the San Francisco Bay area and then in Los Angeles.

Although the cases Rios pursues are intriguing, the novels work less well as mysteries than as explorations of character. Rios is haunted by his dead father, whom he could never please, and he immerses himself in work and alcohol. In the course of the seven novels, he meets and falls in love with a young man who is HIV-positive, watches helplessly as his lover succumbs to the ravages of AIDS, then gradually puts his life back together, falling in love again and reconciling with his remaining family.

Matching Nava's insight into character and relationships is his skill with language. The books are powerfully and beautifully written, the last five especially so as the poems that inform them and provide their titles (by e. e. cummings, W. H. Auden, Yeats, and Dante) subtly reverberate throughout, adding texture and depth and connecting them to a significant literary and cultural tradition. In this series, Nava grows into an excellent novelist.

Dorien Grey's New Millenium Retrospective

The most prolific writer of gay male mysteries in the new millennium has been Roger Margason, writing as Dorien Grey, who has inaugurated two series. Although Grey's novels were published in the new millennium, they seem to be set in the last decades of the twentieth century.

The first series features private investigator Dick Hardesty and consists so far of thirteen novels. It begins with The 9th Man (2000, reissued 2001) and its prequel The Butcher's Son (2001), followed by The Bar Watcher (2001), The Hired Man (2002), The Good Cop (2002), The Bottle Ghosts (2003), The Dirt Peddler (2003), The Role Players (2004), The Popsicle Tree (2005), The Paper Mirror (2005), The Dream Ender (2007), The Angel Singers (2008), and The Secret Keeper (2009).

Hardesty is a gay private investigator in his early thirties who lives and works in an unnamed city presumably in the Midwest. Although the times of their settings are unspecified, they are actually set much earlier than they were published. The first two take place before the advent of AIDS, the later ones sequentially thereafter. In addition to solving mysteries, the novels chronicle the events of Hardesty's private life as he and his friends react to the changing gay scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Soon after the series begins, Hardesty breaks up with his partner of six years over career conflicts and plunges wholeheartedly and quite successfully into the promiscuity of the bar scene. Over the course of time, he and several of his casual sex partners become close friends who share Friday dinner parties and Sunday brunches. Frightened by the "gay cancer," he and his "family" of invariably handsome friends begin to use protection during their sexual encounters and several of them become couples.

In the fifth novel of the series, Hardesty meets Jonathan Quinlan, a young man driven by circumstances into hustling; and, after passing through what amounts to a father-son stage, they become a fully committed, monogamous couple. Four novels later they adopt four-year-old Joshua, Jonathan's orphaned nephew, and become--for all practical purposes--a conventional family.

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