On the Other Hand, Death, by Richard Stevenson (42/107)

(Hey harpijka, I finally read it!! :D)

So a friend of mine has been agitating for years that I should read the Donald Strachey series, seeing as how they’re “mystery with a gay” rather than “gay with a mystery,” of the torsos-on-the-cover variety, but they’re quite old (first one was published in 1979) and I’d been having trouble getting my hands on them.

Then I moved to California, and suddenly I’m in the same town as the Lavender Library, repository of all books gay, and holy cats, I thought I knew a thing or two about gay fiction but I’ve got nothing on them. And lo and behold, they’ve got the Strachey series — which is good, because I own books 2 and 4, but not books 1 and 3. ::le sigh::

Book 1: Death Trick, in which I spent about 5 hours hanging out in the library and being that person who kept laughing out loud.

Don Strachey reads sort of like Harry Dresden, in that he is a hard-boiled first-person smartass, except instead of Dresden’s creepy male-gazy chauvinism towards women, Strachey has no interest in women at all. (Also, no wizards.) Strachey is a private detective in Albany, NY, several years divorced and now well-enmeshed in Albany’s gay scene, in an established relationship with a lawyer named Timothy. (More on Timothy later!)

The first book was published in 1979 and set slightly before that, which makes reading it rather jarring because of the sea changes that the gay scene has experienced since then, particularly since the outbreak of AIDS in the mid-eighties. The subculture that Stevenson was writing about (and for) is a relic of history and not something I’ve ever lived — there were no woo girls, no straight couples on safari, no lesbians at the bars where Stevenson’s gay men went to cruise. It was furtive and just shy of illegal, where the Stonewall riots were still a recent memory, shaping a culture that not only allowed for non-monogamy but basically expected it.

This book kicks off with a gay homicide, and after the primary suspect goes missing, the suspect’s parents hire Strachey to find him, presumably because Strachey’s connections in the gay community will stand him in better stead than the police trying to do the same thing. Strachey is suspicious of their motives, but hey, they’re rich and he’s broke, might as well.

The first book is a fun read — Strachey is snarky and amusing (and gay), and the mystery he’s investigating keeps the plot rolling. Stevenson depicts the blanketing oppression of being gay in the seventies well, without melodrama and with an insider’s appreciation for its ironies. My dark horse favorite in Death Trick wound up being the homophobic cop with whom Strachey strikes up an odd, sort-of friendship, because he’s not stupid, he’s not a stereotype, he’s just pretty damn weirded out by dudes who want to stick their tongues (and other things) into other dudes. The first time they meet:

“Yeah, I’ve heard of you,” he said after I’d introduced myself. “You’re the pouf.”

“What ever happened to ‘pervert’?” I said. “I always liked that one better. ‘Faggot,’ too, I was comfortable with. The word had a defiant edge that I liked. ‘Fairy’ wasn’t bad — it made us seem weak, which was misleading, but also a bit magical. ‘Pouf,’ on the other hand, I never went for. It made us sound as if we were about to disappear. Which we aren’t.”

Which we aren’t. Thirty years separating Richard Stevenson’s experience and mine, but this is what I mean when I talk about authors getting it right — I defy anyone who’s not gay to have written that line. We’re here and we’re queer, etc, and each of us are still embracing some slurs and chafing at others. Strachey has the dubious advantage of being able to pass for straight, and the self-confidence/indifference to shrug off whatever slings and arrows may come his way for being queer, but he’s still living in a world where that is information to be managed. That every time he walks into a conversation with straight men, there’s an alienating wink-and-a-nudge while they assume he’s one of them, and he has to weigh the pros and cons of disclosing each and every time he does it, because he knows what people think about people like him and he has to be ready to counter it.

(This is why, for every machismo-drenched movie or book with a swishy, throwaway side character, I can’t help thinking that it would be more interesting from their point of view.)

Book 2: On the Other Hand, Death
Book 3: Ice Blues

As tends to happen in series fiction, after a certain point I start to lose track of what happened in each book. So it’s not the plots that stick with me, but two things about Donald Strachey:

First, his established relationship. It became clear in the first book that Don’s relationship with Timothy is more monogamish than monogamous, and that’s presented as more or less the done thing for gay men of that time — that even men “with a lover” didn’t necessarily see anything wrong with getting a meaningless quickie elsewhere. In subsequent book, that’s shown to be more problematic than he initially lets on.

Don and Timothy put me in mind of Toreth and Warrick from Manna Francis’s excellent Mind Fuck — the tension inherent in a relationship when one partner is monogamy-minded and the other is… not very good at it. Timothy isn’t a pushover, isn’t a wilting flower, but Don fucks around and he puts up with it. Because that’s the price of admission for being with Don, one he’s decided is worth it, so he deals with it — he has his ground rules, and the only time he really gets angry is when Don has the gall to get jealous that he might be sleeping around too.

Timothy’s role in the first two books is pretty minor, but I like him a lot and I hope Stevenson brings him around more in later books — he’s smart and funny and does helpful things like hit a bad guy in the head with a brick. (And Don does, actually, learn to keep it in his pants by the third book, mostly because of the threat of AIDS.)

The other point of interest is that Donald Strachey is not actually a very moral person. He’s fun, witty and immensely charming, but he also uses people rather indiscriminately, is self-centered in pursuing what he wants, and is one of the best liars I’ve ever come across in fiction — he lies easily, lies well, and lies frequently. Half the time it’s not even lying so much as just “making shit up on the spot,” though that uses the same skillset.

Don’t get me wrong — this is fascinating. Because he’s still quite likable as a protagonist (as opposed to those assholes who make me go “Okay now die in a fire, thanks”), he has strongly-held convictions, and he generally gets to the right ends, if through rather dubious means. But he would also gouge a rich client for as much as he can get, would keep $4 million from going back to its rightful owner if that rightful owner was an asshole, and would plant drugs on a criminal to make sure they got arrested. When a few million dollars falls into his lap, he’ll donate it to charity, but he’ll also skim off $100k of it for a trip to Mexico with Timmy.

(“Oh,” said my BFF when I brought this up with her. “So he’s like, chaotic good.”

“….Yes. Yes, he is.”)

4 thoughts on “On the Other Hand, Death, by Richard Stevenson (42/107)

  1. Hehee! I’m so glad you like it! And you see Donald Strachey just like I interpreted this wonderful, imperfect man. Will be back with more coherent squee.

    As for the films: I… didn’t like very much the first one (the actor playing Strachey is good, I didn’t have anything against him; but the film structure seemed clunky and the other actors were not so very good. At all.). Rassaku’s friends, feel free to convince me to give a shot to the other three.

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