Excerpts! Lammy Finalists: Boystown 10: Gifts Given & Night Drop, both by Marshall Thornton

Two Exclusive Excerpts from this year’s double Lammy Finalist (Gay Mystery)  – Lambda Literary Award winner (and multi-nominated), author, Marshall Thornton!

Click image for Marshall Thornton’s Website

Exclusive Excerpt #1 – Lambda Finalist – Boystown 10: Gifts Given

Given what I’ve seen, given what I’ve lived, it strikes me that love is a kind of madness. An insanity that poses as a necessity, tricking us into believing we need it as much as breath, as much as life itself. A sensible man would run from it, bar the doors, hide in a cupboard like a child, rifle through the kitchen drawers looking for a weapon to stave it off. A sensible man would have nothing to do with love. I am not a sensible man.

Click on image to view all of the 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award Finalists

A week before Christmas, a Tuesday, I asked my friend Brian to go shopping with me. I needed his help picking out a gift for my live-in boyfriend, Joseph Biernacki, which was how we ended up standing in a very long line, empty-handed, waiting to get into Marshall Field’s Walnut Room for lunch. We’d done exactly forty-five minutes of shopping, most of it spent looking at watches even though I knew that was the wrong gift for Joseph. He’d given me a Swatch for our six-month anniversary, so a watch felt wrong, repetitive and unoriginal. Besides, I’d accidentally thrown the Swatch he’d given me away—and I didn’t want to remind him. I was also a little afraid he’d buy me a new one for Christmas.

“You know, lunch is going to take two hours,” I pointed out. “Maybe we should go out to State Street and buy a slice of pizza.” There were greasy little pizza places roughly every two blocks.

“Isn’t this a Chicago tradition, though? A Christmas lunch at Field’s?” Brian asked. He’d grown up downstate. But he was right, lunch at Field’s was a Christmas tradition. Hence the line we were in.

It was something I’d done a dozen times as a child. My mother, like thousands of mothers, had brought my brothers and me each year for shopping and lunch. Unfortunately, whatever fond memories I had of that had been obliterated by the fact that the last time I was in Field’s I’d been shot at.

“It’s not a tradition I need to repeat,” I said.

He read the impatience on my face and said, “Hold on a second,” before walking up to the hostess stand. After a brief conversation he turned and waved at me to join him.

When I got there, the hostess smiled and said, “Right this way.”

As we walked through the atrium, passing the giant, three-story Christmas tree, I whispered into Brian’s ear. “How did you manage this?”

“You’ll see.”

The hostess led us across the wood-paneled dining room—presumably walnut given the name of the place—to a table that sat in the corner in front of two enormous windows looking out at a random collection of Loop office buildings. Sugar Pilson sat alone at a table for four. She was casual but elegant in a cabled cream-colored sweater and a pair of washed-out, high-waisted jeans. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she looked more like the cheerleader she was rumored to have once been than the socialite she actually was. I’d met her years before on a case, but she was now more Brian’s friend than mine. Not that I didn’t like her immensely, it’s just that she and Brian did charity work together for Howard Brown, creating a bond between them I wasn’t part of.

Click on image to purchase

Obviously, Brian had known Sugar was there, so why had we waited in line at all? Were they planning to pretend we were meeting accidentally?

As soon as the hostess walked away, I said, “This is a setup, isn’t it? What’s going on?”

“Of course it’s a set-up, darling. I need to have a professional conversation with you.”

I took off my trench coat and threw it over the fourth chair beside Sugar’s white fox car coat. Brian slipped his down jacket over the back of his chair.

“Why not just come to my office?” I asked as I sat down.

“I’ve driven by your office. Really Nick, how do you expect to attract clients? Your name isn’t on the door and it looks like the kind of place you’d go for a back alley abortion.”

She wasn’t wrong. My office was hardly appealing.

“Abortion is legal, Sugar, and you’re too young to know anything about back alley abortions.”

“I’m not, but it’s sweet of you to say so.”

“So, what exactly do you need?”

She didn’t answer, though, since a waitress showed up. “Can I get you something from the bar?”

“Yes, please. I’ll have one of those wonderful coffee drinks you make,” Sugar said, then she looked at Brian and me and said, “Perfect for a day like today.”

Outside, it was in the low twenties and threatening to snow. Though in all honesty, I doubted Sugar had experienced much of the weather walking from her front door to the limo and from the limo into Field’s. She’d probably been outside for a whole minute and a half.

“I’ll have the same,” I said.

“Can I have a diet Coke?” Brian asked.

When the waitress walked away, I asked Sugar again, “Why do you need my professional services?”

She took a moment, chewed some of the pink lipstick off her lower lip, and finally said, “I’ve fallen in love.”

“And like most women the first thing you thought about was hiring a private detective?”

“Nick, don’t tease her,” Brian said. “It’s not nice.”

“Sorry. I assume you think this gentleman is after your money.”

“Oh, I know he’s after my money,” Sugar said. “They always are. I need to know more about him so I can decide how much I want to spend on him.”

“That’s an interesting attitude,” I said.

“Well, it’s not like I can flip him over and check the price tag.”

Brian giggled at the image.

“All right. What’s his name?” I asked.

“There’s one more thing.”

“Okay.”

“I have the feeling I’m being watched,” Sugar said. “It’s a feeling I don’t like.”

“Why do you feel that way?”

“Things keep showing up in Gloria’s column. Things that shouldn’t be there.”

Gloria Silver wrote “The Silver Spoon” for the Daily Herald. We had a long, unpleasant association. She was the wife of the late Earl Silver, who originally wrote the column. He was also the lover of my friend (and onetime fuck buddy) Ross. I suppose that made us sexual relatives in a way. An extremely unpleasant thought.

I read her column every day, and Sugar was right, she’d been in the column a lot. Several of the mentions had to do with her drinking habits, the others weren’t much more flattering.

“And do you think your new beau is the source of Gloria’s information?”

“No, she’s written about things he couldn’t know.”

“So you think Gloria’s having you followed?”

“Oh God, that sounds so paranoid when you say it out loud.”

The waitress brought our drinks. I took a spoon and stirred mine up. It was topped with whipped cream. Whipped cream and mustaches don’t go well together in public. I took a sip; it was warm and sweet and very strong.

“You can help her, right Nick?” Brian asked.

I wasn’t exactly ready to commit. “Tell me about the man.”

“He’s an artist. I met him at a gallery about two months ago. He paints orchids and flamingos on gigantic canvases. I bought a flamingo for my dining room. That’s how we got to know each other.”

“It’s a great painting,” Brian said.

“Isn’t it?” Sugar said. “I think it just makes the room.”

“How much was this great painting?”

“Hardly anything.”

“Hardly anything in my world is twenty bucks,” I pointed out. “How much is it in yours?”

“Five thousand.”

“Are you his only client?”

“Goodness no. He sells all the time.”

“He’s very popular,” Brian added.

“How long does it take him to paint a picture?”

“A couple of weeks. It’s hard to tell. He works on more than one at a time.”

“So he makes roughly ten grand a month and you think he might be after your money?”

“Darling, I clip coupons. And I never touch my principal.” She also she lived lavishly and gave generously, meaning that her income was large enough to impress people who made ten grand a month.

“You clip coupons? I hope that’s just an expression. I don’t like to think of you having a lot of bearer bonds lying around the house.” Bearer bonds were not registered to their owner and therefore a very convenient thing to steal. They’d also gone out of fashion and, if I wasn’t mistaken, weren’t being issued anymore.

“Of course it’s an expression,” she said. “And I don’t keep anything valuable around the house.” Except the paintings on her walls, the furs in her closet and, I’d guess, a couple handfuls of diamonds lying about.

“We should get back on topic. We were talking about your painter. Michael France.”

“Oh Nick, you know his name! You’re psychic, aren’t you? That must be so useful in your line of work.”

“I read ‘The Silver Spoon.’ Gloria has been promoting him for a while now. A year? Longer?”

“How can you read that dreadful witch?” We’d both had run-ins with Gloria. It was something we had in common. Gloria hated both of us.

“I read her because I like to know what the witch is up to.” Of course, it was obvious that Sugar read the column every day herself. Then something occurred to me. Michael France was a sort of protégé of Gloria’s, or possibly…

“Sugar? Did you steal Gloria’s boyfriend?”

“I wouldn’t phrase it exactly like that.”

Brian, though, was furiously nodding his head.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Didn’t you tell me that Gloria was in love with some twenty-five-year-old who was robbing her blind?”

“He’s not twenty-five, he’s almost thirty. And apparently Gloria is doing just fine since she bought a condo on Lake Shore and Burton. Two bedrooms, three hundred thousand dollars.”

“A hundred and fifty thousand a bedroom?”

“Well, it is an entire floor. And it has more bathrooms than bedrooms.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I know her real-estate agent.”

“I guess the Daily Herald pays better than I thought.”

“It doesn’t. She acts like she comes from money, but I don’t think she does.”

“Did they give her a discount for publicity?”

“A steep discount, I imagine.”

Another waitress came and asked if we wanted to order lunch. There was wait staff everywhere running around and they didn’t seem too concerned with who did what. I ordered the Walnut Room’s famous chicken potpie, Sugar ordered a salad, and Brian ordered meatloaf.

When we were alone again, I said, “I’ll do a standard background check, but I’d also like to meet France—if you don’t think that would be too awkward.”

“There’s a holiday open house at his studio on Thursday. I’ve already invited Brian. Come as his guest. Don’t mention that I’ve hired you.”

“Of course not. Do you plan to tell him, though? At some point?”

“It depends on what you find.”

The conversation drifted to the AIDS test that was supposed to be coming out soon. The test was still being tested, and activists were already raising concerns about confidentiality and whether insurance companies or employers might be able to get hold of your results.

“I was having a conversation with a board member about creating a testing center where people could be tested for free on a strictly confidential basis,” Brian said.

“Does it really matter, though?” I asked. “There’s no cure. So what good is knowing?”

“I’ve heard that before. I think it’s better to know. So that people can take precautions.”

“People are already taking precautions.” Precautions that don’t always work, I did not add.

“Darling, it’s not just about individuals. The test is also important for research and helping doctors learn how to treat their patients.” That was annoyingly true.

Click image to purchase

Exclusive Excerpt #2: Night Drop by Marshall Thornton

At times I felt like a ghost. I think I hadn’t had enough time to become myself before I met Jeffer, and then I was part of Noah and Jeffer, Jeffer and Noah. We went to a party once and I overheard someone saying about me, “It’s like he has no personality when Jeffer leaves the room.” It was a cruel thing to say, mostly because it felt true.

That’s what I was thinking about as I drove home in a riot. Strange, I thought. Very strange. But then I remembered it was almost the anniversary of Jeffer’s getting sick; the great unraveling of secrets and lies; the beginning of my floating away from him, ghostlike and empty.

My apartment was less than a mile from Pinx Video. Around the time Jeffers died, I’d moved to a small, one-bedroom apartment on a hill in Silver Lake. Not one of the better hills, a hill well below Sunset. The good part of Silver Lake was north of Sunset surrounding the actual lake, of course. Fanning out from there were some decent blocks, but then, when you crossed Sunset, you came to a hilly area where altitude and income fell into step. The wealthier people lived at the top of the hills, while the poor and desperate lived at the bottom.

Not that my apartment was the kind of place where rich people lived. The dishwater gray building was a small six-unit L wrapped around a shabby, old-growth courtyard. There were thick, shaggy palms, birds of paradise and a dribbling fountain, leaving only enough room for a single metal table and chairs. A cement stairway—painted rusty red—came up from the street and garages to the courtyard, then a wooden stairway led to the second floor. A red-tiled walkway with white railings ran across the entire second floor.

My place was on the second floor at the front giving me a southwest view of the basin. As I was unlocking my door that morning, I glanced out and saw plumes of smoke rising above the city in at least a dozen spots. I suppose most of them had been there when I’d left two hours before, but I hadn’t thought much about them, assuming they were left over from the night before. Now they seemed ominous; a hint of the future rather than a glimpse of the past.

I wasn’t sure if the apartment measured six hundred square feet, if it did it was just that. The living room was small, too small for a full sofa so I had a second-hand love seat that I’d wrapped in a crazy black and purple print I’d gotten at the new IKEA in Burbank. Beside that there wasn’t much other than a black leather chair with a bent-wood frame—also from IKEA, it was called POONG or something unpronounceable along those lines—a veneered armoire from the thirties which held my 13-inch TV/VCR combo, my video collection (or at least part of it), a compact stereo and a stack of CDs I’d gotten from a record club. On the wall over the POONG chair hung a Hockney poster that Jeffer had bought me at the LACMA retrospective in eighty-eight.

There was a faux Danish modern dinette set that I’d put in front of the window next to the dining area off the kitchen. That area was too small for the table, so I’d turned it into an office area by putting my sixties-style metal desk under the corner windows.

The minuscule, U-shaped kitchen had appliances that were brand new when I was in high school and very little counter space, most of which was taken up by my most important appliance, the microwave.

The bedroom had a wall of closets, and a wall of built-in cabinets and drawers, leaving exactly enough room for a queen-sized bed. I had set my bed in front of a do-it-yourself bookcase made of concrete blocks and planks of wood, using it as a kind of headboard. This eliminated the need for nightstands, which there wasn’t room for anyway. I’d painted the entire apartment dove gray and put in bright white miniblinds. I ignored the sculptured brown carpet as best I could.

I put on a Dionne Warwick CD and kicked off my shoes. I went into the bathroom to wash my face. I don’t think it was dirty, but just the idea of a riot made everything seem sooty and thick. I tried not to look at myself. If I had I would not have seen the ghost I felt like but instead a reasonably attractive young man of around twenty-eight. I had brown eyes and unremarkable but symmetrical features. The most noticeable thing about me was my hair. It was massively thick and stubborn. It did whatever it chose and I had little say in the matter. I’d tried every product out there and nothing tamed the beast on my head. At that particular moment it needed cutting, but I could hardly put out a bulletin to stop the riot so I could find a barber.

I tried even harder not to look at the rest of me. If you were being unkind you’d call me delicate, frail, skinny—I couldn’t for the life of me keep weight on—elf-like even. And if you were being kind, well, there were few kind words for a man of my stature.

Dionne was nearly finished loving Paris when the phone rang. I pressed pause on the CD player and picked up the cordless. It was Louis from downstairs.

“Marc is on his way home from the studio. They’re shutting down. Did you close the video store?”

“I did.”

“Good idea. I’m making lunch. Come down.”

I’d barely said yes when he hung up. Louis was partial to short telephone chats and long after-dinner conversations. I didn’t need to change my clothes; I dressed casually at Pinx—though not as casually as my employees. Still, I changed into a pair of khaki shorts, flip-flops, a mock turtleneck and an over-sized jean jacket. I ran a comb through my hair but quickly gave up trying to subdue it. Then went down to the courtyard about ten minutes later.

Louis had a glass of chardonnay already poured for me. The sky was thick with clouds—the marine layer—but that didn’t matter. There was an umbrella stuck into the center of the metal table in the extremely remote chance it rained.

Sitting on the ground next to the table was a high-end boom box tuned to KCRW. They were discussing whether the Federal government might now file charges against the LAPD officers accused of beating King. The guest was fairly certain they would.

“We live in strange times,” Louis said coming out of his apartment. He and Marc lived directly below in an apartment that was identically small. While I had a view, they’d claimed this end of the courtyard for themselves.

Wearing navy shorts, penny loafers, a light blue dress shirt and an apron that said “Finger Lickin’ Good,” Louis was tall, nearly forty and spreading in the middle. His eyes protruded a bit and his smile was wide, giving him the look of a jovial frog. I wasn’t the first to notice it; there was a collection of miniature frogs on his kitchen windowsill. In one hand he held a plate full of uncooked ribs.

“We live in strange times, so you thought you’d barbecue?” I asked.

“It was that or pack up the car and flee.”

He set the ribs on the table and bent over a small hibachi. In a short while, he had the coals lit and sat down with me at the table.

“So. Can you believe the verdict?” he asked.

“It was shocking.”

“I don’t see how they could come to that decision. Between the videotape and Gates himself saying it was…what was the word he used, an aberration?”

I sipped the wine. It was cold, sweet and tart at the same time, and warming as it went down. The glass had sprouted beads of water. I rubbed at them while I listened to the sirens in the distance.

“I don’t remember much about the beating. I wasn’t paying attention,” I admitted.

“Well, it wasn’t an aberration. I’ve seen the LAPD beat people like that before.”

“You have?”

“Absolutely. I mean, there was no video camera handy. And the person was white. But you have to know LAPD makes a habit of this.”

“So, it’s systemic?”

“Again, the video. Look at all those other cops standing around watching, doing nothing. That’s systemic.”

“What about people saying King was on PCP?”

“And it gives you superhuman strength?”

I shrugged. That’s what they said, but I had no idea.

“If that man had superhuman strength they left it out of the video,” Louis said.

Just then, Marc came up the stairs. He was smaller and wider than Louis, and about ten years younger. He wore gray wool slacks, a white shirt and a red tie. In one hand, he carried the jacket that went with the slacks, in the other a scuffed briefcase. His face was round and his lips were what my mother’s generation would have called bee-stung.

Not bothering to go inside, he flopped down in one chair and tossed his things in another, before he pulled out a pack of extra-long menthol cigarettes.

“Oh. My. God. I just drove through hell.” He lit his cigarette and inhaled. “I took Washington to Vermont, my normal route. Huge mistake. I had no idea that South Central was like a block away from there. A block! They started talking about it on the radio. Did you know that it goes all the way up to the 10? I certainly didn’t. And there I was, a block from the 10. And then, almost as soon as I realize that, I glance over and there are these guys trying to break into a liquor store on the other side of the street. I mean, the place had all these security bars and they’re just ripping them down like they’re curtains—Louis, why haven’t you gotten me a glass of wine?”

“Well dear, it seemed rude to walk away while you were talking.”

“Go get me wine. I’ll talk louder.” He inhaled deeply from his cigarette. “So, every few blocks there’s someone trying to break into a business and then…OH MY GOD!” he yelled so Louis could hear him inside. “I get to Washington and Vermont and there are two, not one but TWO GAS STATIONS ON FIRE!”

Louis came out of the apartment with a fresh glass of wine for himself and one for Marc. “You didn’t stop for any red lights, did you?”

“Are you crazy? Not after the things we saw on TV last night.” He took the glass of wine. “Oh thank God.” After a long sip, he continued. “I don’t know what happened. This morning—I mean, I drove the same route at eight-thirty—nothing was happening, nothing was being broken into, and nothing was on fire.”

“I guess rioters like to sleep in,” Louis suggested. “They were up late last night, after all.”

“Did you really run red lights?” I asked.

“Only the one at Washington and Vermont.”

“So, there were no fire engines at that intersection? No police?”

“No, the gas stations were just burning.”

“Well,” said Louis. “We’re glad you made it home safe.”

“Yes, my being dragged from the car and beaten would have ruined your appetite.”

“Well, it would have,” Louis said. “Though not as much as worrying about how I’d get the Infiniti back.” He looked at me and said, “It’s on a lease.”

I enjoyed Marc and Louis and their banter. I felt safe with them for some reason. I wondered what Jeffer would have thought of them. I doubt he’d have liked them. I remember the first time I brought Jeffer up, Marc said, “Good God, what kind of a name is Jeffer?”

“He was Jeff as a child. And then Jeffrey. But he liked Jeffer best.”

“Pretentious,” Marc said.

“Now, now,” Louis interrupted. “Don’t speak ill of the dead. Not when there are living people you can speak ill of.” And then he did just that, taking a few swipes at the president, who I found too bland to be worth insulting, or Pat Robertson or the mayor. It was fine with me, of course, since I preferred to talk about anything but Jeffer.

“Did you close the video store?” Marc asked.

“Of course, he closed the video store,” Louis replied for me. “He’s here isn’t he? He wouldn’t just leave his employees to fend for themselves.”

“Do you think it will be all right?” Marc asked, pointedly ignoring his lover.

“Well, they’re not sure it’s going to get this far,” I said. “I’ve heard most of it is still happening in South Central and Koreatown.”

“Yes, I imagine Koreatown’s getting slammed,” Louis said. “It’s one thing to murder a child. It’s another to get off scot-free.”

“It was involuntary manslaughter,” Marc corrected.

“You say potato I say murder.”

White flakes of ash began falling through the air. One or two at first, then more. The wind picked them up somewhere nearby. A somewhere nearby that was on fire.

“And Koreatown didn’t kill the girl, that cashier did. It’s not the neighborhood’s fault. It’s really the judge’s fault, she’s the one who reduced the sentence. They should go burn her house down and be done with it.”

“And the jury out in Simi Valley. They should get their houses burned down. Come to think of it, they can burn the whole Simi Valley.”

“I blame public transportation,” I said quietly.

“What?” Louis asked, and they both looked at me.

“Public transportation is terrible in L.A. The rioters can’t get to Simi Valley.”

Louis erupted into laughter. He put the ribs onto the hibachi, and when he stood up noticed the white flakes of ash floating in the air.

“Huh. Who says it never snows in Los Angeles.”

EXCERPT: Done To Death: Lambda Award Finalist Charles Atkins – Lesbian Mystery

Done To Death

by

Charles Atkins

Excerpt:

Chapter Two

Barry Stromstein felt the migraine coming. His vision had wavy lines around the edges and it was hard to focus on Lenore’s face. There was her trademark auburn bob and arresting green eyes; admittedly, her hair was wavering to the right and, at the moment, she had four eyes. He heard her words, but struggled to put them into sentences. Just nod and smile, he told himself, hoping he could make it through, knowing it was her perfume – Lenore’s ‘Possession’ − that triggered what was blossoming into a headache that if he didn’t take his Rizatriptan in the next ten minutes would leave him desperate for his bed and a dark room for the next three days. ‘Right,’ he parroted her last sentence, ‘local color . . . petty jealousies, fun characters.’

‘Are you even listening?’ she asked. ‘I don’t think you’re getting this, Barry, and to be honest, your first treatment I wouldn’t use for toilet paper. Bargain Bonanza? What kind of crap project is that? We’re not cable access. You either pull this together fast, or I’ll give it to Carrie. And if that happens . . .’

He wanted to scream, and he knew she wasn’t kidding. ‘I’ve got it, Lenore,’ and, struggling to find the words, he blurted, ‘you want blood, guts, expensive tchotchkes and scenic New England. Kind of Antiques Roadshow meets The Hunger Games on the set of Gilmore Girls.’

There was a moment’s pause. ‘Hallelujah!’ she said, closing the space between them.

Her perfume, like a wave of noxious gas, engulfed him. He had to get out of there. ‘I’m on it.’ He backed away, ‘I’ll have something on your desk by morning.’

‘That’s a good boy,’ she said. ‘And Barry, if you don’t . . .’

He took that as his cue and, holding his breath, bolted from her inner office. Half-blinded by the oncoming migraine he raced out of Lenore’s penthouse suite and down the hall. He bypassed the elevators and flew down eight flights of stairs, his thoughts fixed on the pill in his upper desk drawer. He sprinted to his offices and banged his knee on a glass top desk in the reception area.

Celia, his secretary, looked up, ‘Oh crap,’ she said. ‘You’ve got migraine eyes.’

‘Yeah,’ he said without stopping, the words thick on his tongue. It was always the same. First the vision went, then his words, and then came the actual headache, like a vice squeezing his eyeballs while a steel pike pounded into his brain. He jerked the drawer open, grabbed the little blue box, pulled out the ridiculously expensive pills, fumbled at the packaging and finally popped the melty lozenge under his tongue. It tasted like chalk and like something trying to be a pastille mint, but bitter and metallic. He closed his eyes, and heard Celia as she quietly walked around his corner office closing the blinds and shutting out the spectacular views of Central Park and midtown.

‘Do you want me to cancel your afternoon meetings?’

9780727883742 DONE TO DEATH

‘Please.’

‘You got it . . . you should go home.’

‘Can’t. Need to come up with a new concept. She hated Bargain Bonanza. Give me forty-five minutes. Wait!’ Still tasting the pill’s remnants on his tongue, he thought through Lenore’s directive. ‘Tell the team to toss everything on Bargain Bonanza but the locale . . . I think that’s still OK – in fact, I know it is. Tell them blood lust and collectibles, and to be ready to pitch by one. And no one’s leaving till we have a winner.’

‘Will do. Anything I can do to help?’

‘No . . . it’s just got to run its course. Thank God for the magic melt-under-the-tongue pills.’

‘It was her perfume, wasn’t it?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Why don’t you tell her?’

Barry looked at his assistant through hooded eyes. ‘Seriously?’

‘Right,’ Celia shrugged, as her phone rang. ‘Hope you feel better,’ and she shut the door.

Just breathe, he told himself, his head in his hands, his eyes shut tight. Let it pass. What a bitch! After three years with Lenore, Barry had no illusions. Either he came up with an acceptable pitch in the next twenty-four hours or he could take his résumé and try to find another producing job in an industry where thirty-five is over the hill and forty is washed up, and he was thirty-eight. To the outside world this was a great gig, a high six figure salary, bonuses, a team of young and energetic wannabes snapping at his heels. His NYU Alma Mater, Tisch School of the Arts, wanting him to take interns, holding him up as an exemplar of someone making it in the entertainment industry. And in a single day it could all turn to ashes. Lenore was desperate to stay on top . . . of the ratings, of her celebrity, of everything and everyone. She was hunger personified, a gaping maw always wanting more. ‘She’s a monster.’ He cracked his eyes open, and thought of his one point five million dollar apartment that was barely eleven hundred square feet, with a tiny patio, two modest bedrooms − one for him and Jeanine and the other for three-year-old Ashley. He pictured his gorgeous wife and their little girl, with blond ringlets that would darken with time, bright hazel eyes − they were his two treasures, his salvation. You have to pull this together.

He and Jeanine, a contestant on his last successful show, Model Behavior, had no more than a two month cushion in the bank and no family safety net. To Barry’s blue collar Jersey parents and Jeanine’s, who survived crop to crop on their Iowa farm, they were the affluent ones.

His phone buzzed; Celia’s voice came through the speaker. ‘Barry, it’s Jeanine, do you want me to tell her you’re out?’

‘No, put her on.’

The line clicked.

‘Hi sweetie,’ Jeanine’s husky voice even better than his magic pill.

Barry closed his eyes, ‘Hey babe, what’s up?’

‘It’s kind of stupid,’ she said. ‘But I felt like I should check before blowing twenty-five hundred bucks on a pocketbook.’

‘What?’

‘I know you’ll tell me just to do it. But I’m looking at all the other high-end real estate agents and the ones who get the million dollar sales are all carrying Chanel or Birkin. It’s part of the uniform − a Chanel suit, a pair of Louboutin pumps and a Birkin bag.’

‘Then do it,’ he said.

‘You’re sure?’

‘Babe, if you need it, you need it.’

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.

‘Migraine.’

‘What triggered it?’

‘Lenore’s perfume.’

‘That bitch! Are you going to be OK?’

‘Yeah, actually just hearing your voice helps.’

‘Why don’t you take the rest of the day? Screw the purse, I’ll pour you a bath, give you a massage . . .’

Barry let Jeanine’s words fill his head. He imagined her soft hands kneading his tense shoulders, the tickle of her silky curls against his skin. ‘That would be what the doctor ordered, but I can’t.’

‘Barry, tell me what’s wrong, and I’m not just talking the headache. What’s going on?’

He didn’t want to tell her. He hated this crushing sense of failure, of letting her down. He also knew she wouldn’t let up until he told her. ‘She hated the pitch.’

‘Barry, I’m so sorry. What’s the backup plan?’

‘Working on it now. I’ll come up with something.’

‘And if you don’t? What did she say? Tell me, please.’

‘Don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine. Everything’s fine. Really. It’s just the headache couldn’t have come at a worse time. But I got to my pill in time, it’s passing. You know me, it’s all about pulling rabbits from hats. I want you to go out and buy that pocketbook. Because you know what they say?’

‘What?’

Remembering advice from one of his first mentors in the industry. ‘The more you spend, the more you make.’

‘You’re sure of that?’

‘Absolutely. I’m going to want to see that purse when I get home. Although don’t wait up, it’s going to be a very long night.’

‘I love you Barry,’ Jeanine said. ‘And that has nothing to do with a pocketbook.’

‘I know. But I want you to have it. I want you and Ashley to have everything, and I’m going to make damn certain that this next pitch blows Lenore away.’

‘OK then . . .’

He heard the concern in her voice. It was like a knife. ‘I’m going to make this work.’

‘I know you will.’

‘Buy the pocketbook.’

‘OK.’

‘I love you.’

‘I love you too,’ she said, ‘and I hope that bitch Lenore drops dead.’

‘Please God no,’ he said. ‘Without Lenore there will be no Birkin bags.’

‘Fine, then I guess she can live. And Barry . . .’

‘Yeah?’

‘I am going to wait up.’

After he hung up he felt a familiar tingle that pushed against the migraine. Eight years into their marriage and ten into their relationship, just her voice made everything right. If she wanted a Birkin bag, he’d make damn sure she’d get it. Lenore trashing Bargain Bonanza was not the end of the world . . . not yet. With his eyes closed he hung on to the sound of Jeanine’s voice. How did you get to be that lucky? It was time to get to work.

He glanced at his monitor and braced for the stab of pain the light would send to his head. He squinted and focused on unread emails. His vision was clearing. The pill was doing its trick with the pain − holding it back. Sure, he’d have a headache, but he’d gotten to the med in time. Just function, he told himself. That was all that mattered − function, come up with something brilliant − Antiques Roadshow meets The Hunger Games on the set of Gilmore Girls − pitch it and get Lenore to love it. In spite of everything, he chuckled. ‘That won’t happen.’ In his three years with Lenore she didn’t love anything, and even when she did, she’d never let you know. ‘I expect brilliance,’ is what she’d say. ‘It’s what I pay you for.’

            Celia, who pre-screened his emails, had divided them into files. He started in with those related to the now tanked Bargain Bonanza. There was one from the field agent who’d been scouting locations − Grenville, CT being a front runner, as Lenore had a country place in Shiloh, the town immediately north. There were several from agents who represented prospective hosts they’d approached, and a small stack from assorted locals at the various sites. He flipped through a couple from freelance show runners and field producers, two of whom he knew well, one he’d gone to school with, Jim Cymbel.

He opened Jim’s.

Hey B:

            Wanted to get back with some ideas for your killer new reality show − Bargain Bonanza. Where the market’s saturated with these flea market contests, it’s a tough sell getting a new boy to float to the top. I’ve got several ways we could do this. I’d love to talk it over and see if we could make a marriage.

            Love ya . . . and Jeanine.        

            Jim

He thought about calling, but only as a last resort. Sure, Jim wanted to help − help himself to Barry’s job. Because that email − and several others in his queue − were a lot like the one he’d sent to Susan Grace, the woman whose offices he now occupied. Last he’d heard she’d fallen down the industry food chain to where she couldn’t even get pitch meetings.

He looked back at the screen and shifted from prospective producers and their promises to deliver fresh ideas, scanning the ones from talent agents − waste of time till you know what you’re doing. He scrolled past the smattering of locals at various sites. Those were a crap-shoot, everything from mayors and first selectmen, wanting Lenore’s reflected glamour in their town, to B and Bs and prospective locations eager to sign lucrative deals.

His eye caught on one headed ‘Cash or Trash − Lil Campbell’. ‘That’s as lame as Bargain Bonanza’ – but he clicked it open anyway.

Dear Mr Stromstein:

            This is in response to the email I received about my syndicated antiques and collectibles column, ‘Cash or Trash’. Yes, I’d love to set up a phone time to talk about one of my favorite things − my hometown Grenville, CT, the antiques capital of New England (possibly the world). The thought of having a Lenore Parks show feature our town is a thrill. Feel free to call any time − the home number is the best, but I do carry my cell.

            Best,

            Lil Campbell

 LammyFinalist_Small_Web_v3

He replayed his Hail Mary pass that Lenore seemed to like − Antiques Roadshow meets The Hunger Games on the set of Gilmore Girls. Scenic Grenville, in the Litchfield Hills, fit a third of the equation. Through hooded eyes he dialed Lil Campbell’s number and pressed the button for speaker. He leaned back and waited for an answering machine.

‘Hello?’ A woman’s voice answered.

‘Hi, this is Barry Stromstein, of Lenore Parks Productions. I’m trying to reach a Lil Campbell.’

‘How strange is that? I had literally just dialed your number when you popped up on call waiting.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Talk about synchronicity. Do you mind if I put you on speaker? My partner Ada Strauss is with me and we don’t often get calls from TV producers.’

‘That’s fine,’ he said. ‘So what got you to dial?’

‘You’re kidding,’ she said. ‘The thought of having even a single episode of a show shot in Grenville would be a big deal. I mean several of our dealers have been experts on other shows, but nothing in the town itself.’

‘Right,’ and Barry recoiled at the familiar scent of want. ‘So,’ falling into his familiar role of gatekeeper to the brass ring, ‘what makes Grenville special?’

He listened as this Lil woman extolled the town’s beauty. He’d seen the pictures and knew she wasn’t lying. It would be a dream to film: the changing seasons, lovingly preserved Colonial and Federal houses, the tidy greens with their romantic bronzes and ancient cannons. Fine, it’s pretty, he thought, lots of places are pretty. And sure, it probably fulfills two out of three − Antiques Roadshow and the set of Gilmore Girls. He imagined bringing Jeanine and little Ashley out for the shoots; they’d love it. His thoughts drifted, and he made polite noises as though he were paying attention as Lil Campbell talked about the two hundred antique dealers, the weekly flea market and active council − God save me from active councils. He’d heard enough. He gently cleared his throat. ‘It does sound like a place to consider,’ he said, and prepared to launch into his kiss off.

‘Lil, don’t forget to tell him about the murder rate,’ a new voice popped in.

‘Excuse me?’

‘The murder rate,’ this other woman, with a slight New York accent, repeated. ‘Grenville had the highest per capita murder rate in Connecticut for two years running. And if you think about it, all of the victims were in some way connected to the antiques industry, although in that horrible fire at the assisted living center it was mostly that doctor.’

‘Which doctor? And I’m assuming you’re Ada.’

‘Ada Strauss. Long story short: it was a huge Medicaid fraud, we’re talking millions, that centered on this doctor − who apparently was both an antique clock collector and a hoarder. We’d see him every week at the flea market. It wound up as an arson slash multiple murder at one of the biggest assisted care facilities in the state. And, considering the total population of Grenville is twelve thousand, it doesn’t take much to bump our numbers up. That pushed us to the top for 2011, and in 2010 there was a serial killer who was taking out high-end antique dealers. Come to think of it, another doctor − what is with them? That one was a dentist. The freaky thing is he actually worked on a crown for me that came off when I was eating a crème brulée . . . sorry, too much information. Although both Lil and I barely made it out when he torched his place.’

‘What? Wait a minute!’ Barry was forward in his seat. ‘Not too much at all.’ His complacency and the throbbing in his head had suddenly been blown away like leaves in a storm . . . meets The Hunger Games. Ding ding ding. ‘Tell me about the murders. It seems like you know a fair amount about them.’

‘Please, we were there . . . I mean really there, as in almost got killed. You see Calvin Williams, the psychopathic dentist, had a lifelong crush on Lillian, and apparently his mother, who had Alzheimer’s, had been selling off the family heirlooms to local dealers who’d essentially robbed her blind.’

Barry was mesmerized as plots and twists fell from this Ada Strauss’s lips. A town filled with competing dealers, a supply of merchandise that was hotly contested, corruption, bribes, small-town scandals, a child-molesting dentist . . . murder. Too good to be true. He tried to picture Ada Strauss. She sounded a bit older, knowledgeable and funny. At one point he interrupted her, ‘Do I have your headshot?’

She laughed, ‘Why would you?’

‘Right . . . not an actress or on-screen personality, I’m assuming.’

‘Hardly. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Strauss’s department stores.’

‘I remember them.’ He laughed. ‘I remember my mother putting us in matching caps so she wouldn’t lose us during the back to school sales.’ He felt a twinge of regret. She might be too old for on-screen talent, or she could be a total dog. ‘You’re that Strauss . . . and Mr Strauss?’

‘Passed several years ago.’

‘Sorry.’

‘You didn’t kill him. But it’s kind of you to say.’

‘You’re quick.’

‘You’re surprised.’

His usual defenses were down. There was something here − at least he hoped there was. You’re desperate, Barry, this is a reach. ‘Is there any way I could get you – I mean the two of you – into the city for a pitch meeting this afternoon?’

‘I have no idea what that is,’ Ada Strauss said. ‘I mean aside from what you read in Jackie Collins novels. Lil? What do you think?’

‘We could be there in two hours. It’s the middle of the day, and traffic shouldn’t be bad.’

‘Fantastic!’ And he gave them the address.

After they hung up, he buzzed his assistant. ‘Celia, we’ve got an Ada Strauss coming in from Connecticut. I want some test shots, and get Jason to get her on tape. Have her talk about anything: antiques, murder, whatever.’

He hung up and realized his headache was gone. Please, he thought, feeling the dangerous seed of hope take root. Please, please, please.

 

 

 

Exclusive Excerpt: PRETTY BOY DEAD, a mystery/thriller novel by Jon Michaelsen

Lambda Literary Award Finalist – Gay Mystery 

Blurb:

A murdered male stripper. A missing go-go dancer. A city councilman on the hook. Can Atlanta Homicide Detective Sgt. Kendall Parker solve the vicious crime while remaining safely hidden behind the closet door?

PrettyBoyDead_cvrFINAL_FINAL

 

Exclusive Excerpt:

“I’ve talked to a few of the bartenders,” Perelli shouted, leaning near his partner’s ear. He stuck a thumb over his shoulder as Parker turned. “None….good…say…”

Unable to understand, he motioned for them to move up the stairs and out into the main room. “What were you saying?” he asked, ignoring the ringing echo in his ears.

“No luck so far. I’ve talked to several employees, but nothing.” Perelli tipped his cup on end, licking the remnants of alcohol from the corners of his mouth. “I’m getting another. Want one?”

“Take it easy on the alcohol, Perelli.”

Perelli waved him off and shot across the carpeted floor, returning moments later with a fresh drink. “Cops carry clout in these places,” he said. “No waiting in line either.” The threat to his masculinity had abated with a few drinks. So, it seemed, had his cold shoulder to Parker. “Hell, this place ain’t so bad,” he sneered. “Despite all the fucking fags.”

Parker ignored his partner’s comment, distracted by the movement of a patron across the room. The young man was edging toward the emergency exit and kept an eye peeled in their direction.

“What’s up, partner?”

“I’m not sure yet,” said Parker. “You see the guy over there in the red tank?” Perelli followed Parker’s stare and nodded. “Since we’ve been standing here, he’s slipped through the crowd, not a word to anyone, but kept watching us. Looks like he’s headed for that exit.”

“I’d say he’s about to bolt.” Perelli tossed his cup into a nearby trash bin and leaned in close to Parker’s ear. “I’ll head out front and swing around,” he said. “He makes a run for it, I’ll be there.”

Parker studied the character over his partner’s shoulder. “Keep it cool, Perelli,” he said. “If the dude makes a break for it, detain him and that’s all. It’s probably nothing, but I want to be sure. And watch your back.”

Perelli disappeared through the squash of bodies. Parker sipped his cocktail, peering over the rim of the plastic cup as he watched the man’s eyes springboard around the room. Parker spotted Callahan and two goons moving in fast as the man rushed to make a break for it. A hand slapped onto Parker’s arm about the time he started to advance.

“Slade. What the hell are you doing here?”

The reporter smirked. Parker turned back in time to see the red shirt had moved closer to the emergency exit. A cluster of chatty men blocked his view as Slade tugged his arm again.

“You’re working the park homicide, aren’t you? Why else would you be here?” Slade tried to follow Parker’s line of sight across the room. “I know the victim worked here as a dancer, a mighty popular one, I might add.”

“What’s your point?” Parker turned away and craned his neck over the crowd in front of him. He spotted the tousled blond hair of the young man within inches of freedom. “Some other time,” he said.

All eyes were on Parker as he shoved and elbowed his way through the crowd, stepping on a few toes along the way. He heard some choice words and threats in his wake. Patrons dashed out of the way and protected their drinks.

The guy threw open the emergency door and set off the alarm. Someone nearby screamed and people scattered in the opposite direction. Callahan and his men retreated as Parker reached the exit, slammed through the door and leaped into the alleyway beside the club.

Pitch black. Retrieving his gun with his right hand, he clasped the butt of the weapon with his left and waited wide-eyed for his pupils to adjust. Where was Perelli? Brooks? The smell of sewage and stale beer hung in the night air. Behind him, the heavy door shut.

An eerie silence invaded the area.

Parker stood in total darkness, his weapon aimed, and safety released. His heart pumped like a jackhammer as he scanned the area. He ventured forward, placing one foot carefully before the next in slow, measured steps. The grit on the asphalt crunched beneath his rubber soles and echoed in his ears.

The exit door had dumped him into the narrow alleyway accessed by main roads at either end of the Metroplex. A long, dark vehicle facing the opposite direction hugged the cinderblock wall of the building, exhaust from its tailpipe drifting skyward from an idling engine. The tinted windows were slick with raindrops, and the headlights off. Parker glanced to the left. A pile of empty liquor boxes seemed to be the only hiding place, because the guy didn’t have enough time to get to Juniper Street.

LammyFinalist_Small_Web_v3Where the fuck’s Perelli?

Seconds ticked away in the quiet alley. Parker edged forward to inspect the pile of rubbish, poking at the refuse with the barrel of his gun. Nothing. Moving around to the other side, he nudged at several lower boxes with his toe. No movement. His stomach constricted and his legs stiffened with anticipation. Perspiration slid down his temples, but he dared not wipe the sweat away. Two minutes had passed since his burst through the door and still nothing stirred.

Every cop dreaded such a situation, slow dancing in the shadows alone with a robber, a thief…a killer. Fear had a way of clutching the heart and soul, controlling all logic. He knew from experience the anxiety coursing through his veins was enough to riddle a man’s body stiff and lock his joints, even for tough cops like him. It had a mind of its own…fear, dominating the human psyche, causing one to act out of desperation, to strike when provoked. Fear.

Fear of the unknown or fear of death?

Parker backed away from the boxes, his eyes glued to the pile of cardboard, his breathing more rapid and his heartbeat echoing in his ears. Easy, he coaxed himself. Wait him out. He swung his arms slowly to the right, following the point just above the barrel of his weapon. Steady…

A cat screamed in the distance, sending chills up Parker’s spine. He stepped into something cold and wet, the mess oozing into his shoe as a pungent odor hit his nose. A door in the wall next to the parked vehicle burst open and out stepped a short figure in a suit, bathed in the interior light when the car door opened. He heard a faint step, saw a flash of red before something heavy struck hard against the back of his head.

Pain shot through his neck and shoulders. He stumbled forward off balance, but managed to fire a single shot into the brick wall before losing his grip on the gun. A broken bottle, lead pipe, splintered board—whatever the hell it was—held by a shadowed hand cracked hard across Parker’s skull. He tumbled to the wet pavement in time to see confusion flicker across the face of the suited man ducking into the backseat of the sedan. The vehicle’s engine revved, and its tires squealed as it raced away. Fuck!

The attacker dropped its weapon and sprinted in the opposite direction. Parker got to his knees and fumbled around for his gun. He stood, staggered a second, and took off after the attacker in a running stumble. The pressure and pain at the base of his head pulsated as he ran. Warm blood flowed from above his right ear, filling his ear canal and running down his jaw and neck.

The suspect had darted around the building onto Juniper. Parker neared the corner wall and halted, putting his back against the brick wall to avoid another attack. He  sucked in a deep breath and threw his entire weight around the corner with his pistol drawn. In the distance, two figures scuffled in the middle of the road, their struggle illuminated by a nearby street lamp.

Freeze!” Parker chased after the man, spitting blood as he ran.

The suspect glanced up, panicked and clamped his teeth down hard on Perelli’s arm before stabbing him in the chest with something. Perelli yelled, released his hold and fell to the asphalt clutching his neck. The perpetrator sprinted down the block and disappeared at the next side street.

 

Purchase Links:

Amazon 

eBook: http://tinyurl.com/PBD-ebook

Print: http://tinyurl.com/PBDprint

2013 Lambda Literary Award Winner in Gay Mystery, Author Jeffrey Round

Interviewed by Jon Michaelsen  © 2014

Jeffrey, thank you so much for taking time to answer some questions for members of the Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction Facebook group. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Let’s start off with, where do you live?

I live in the now-fashionable neighbourhood of Leslieville, in Toronto’s east end. When I moved here, twenty years ago, it was very unfashionable. There were skinheads living at the end of my street and not a flower to be seen.  My then-partner and I were the first to landscape our yard, front and back. By the following year, we seemed to have started a trend. The skinheads moved out and the neighbours began taking a greater interest in the appearance of their properties. Now we have trendy cafés, film studios and even gelato shops.

Without getting too personal, would you share a little about your home life?

I’m not sure there is very much to share. I lived with a partner and a hound dog for a number of years. Then we split up and my dog died. I was single for the past few years. Unexpectedly, last December, I met someone I am very happy to be with, though we’ve held off on the decision to move in together. He is a gay dad, the father of a 14-year old, just like my character Dan Sharp. It’s a clear case of life imitating art. As for the writing, I work in an upstairs office overlooking my backyard garden. It’s very peaceful. I can hear the crickets and see stars at night. It keeps me sane, otherwise I might not have stayed in the city.

What would you say is your greatest accomplishment to date? 

I’ve been lucky enough to have eight books published. (That is as of this month, in fact. In the Museum of Leonardo da Vinci—my first book of poetry—has just come out from Tightrope Books.) I consider that an accomplishment, though when I measure it against everything I’ve wanted to achieve in life, it seems fairly insignificant. How I’ll feel about it all in another twenty years remains to be seen. I think if I were a father, I would see that as a much more important personal accomplishment.

Have you ever had to deal with homophobia after your novels were released, and if so, what forms has it taken?

Surprisingly little in any direct sense, which is fortunate. I prefer to fight for what I believe in rather than fight against what I don’t like. My writing is pretty direct in stating how I feel about the world around me. Indirectly, I suppose there are plenty of readers who won’t pick up my books because of the gay slant. There’s nothing I can do about that. I think if they did, they might be surprised to find some intelligent insights on what makes life worth living while being entertained along the way. They could only benefit from it.

P-TownCormorant

I was recently introduced to your Bradford Fairfax Mysteries via first novel, “The P-Town Murders” and Dan Sharp Mysteries via first novel, “Lake on the Mountain”; the former features Private Investigator/Special Agent, Bradford Fairfax, and the latter, Missing Persons Investigator, Dan Sharp; both gay mystery series are polar opposites, including the main characters. Was this intentional on your part? 

I’m glad you got to see both sides of me. I think of Dan as the dark me and Bradford as the light me. Between them, I sort of balance out. Yes, it was entirely intentional once I got going. I didn’t start off writing mysteries at all, but after writing a novel about the Bosnian War (The Honey Locust) and not being able to find a publisher for it for several years, I started to give serious thought as to what might sell. I wrote and polished The P-Town Murders in six months and sold it in less than two weeks. I knew I was on track and quickly penned a sequel, Death in Key West. Seeing how fast I could do this, my former editor asked when I was going to “get serious about mysteries.” I was having so much fun writing the comedies, it took me a while to realize I had the potential to take things in a weightier direction. When I wrote Lake On The Mountain, I didn’t plan on writing a second series. My character, Dan Sharp, had other ideas, as it turns out.

The first Dan Sharp mystery, Lake on the Mountain, won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Mystery in 2013. Congratulations on your Lammy! Did you ever expect such a prestigious award for your love of writing? Did winning the award help introduce Dan Sharp to more readers across the border? 

LakeMountain

Thanks, Jon, and congratulations on your nomination as well. The Lambda win was a much-welcome vote of confidence in my writing, though I’m acutely aware how many books out there don’t get the recognition they deserve, so it was also humbling. As for expectations, there are always hopes and dreams, and we all need those! I did, however, have an argument with my agent over the book. For some reason, she was reluctant to shop it around. (Maybe this is the homophobia you asked about. It is much more blatantly sexual than any of my previous books.) I kept insisting it was my best writing to date. We eventually parted ways over it and I sold it on my own. My editor at Dundurn said he thought it was a book with award-winning potential, and I agreed, so while I was grateful when it was nominated for and eventually won the Lambda, I was not totally surprised. Now the trick is to see whether I can live up to the expectation it has built for subsequent volumes.

LammySeal-actualsize_2013-e1377558848107

As for whether the award influenced sales, I can’t give a definitive answer to that. I was told it was one of Dundurn’s four best-selling ebooks of 2012 before the nomination, so it was already doing well. I remember going around Manhattan the weekend I was there for the Lambda Award ceremonies trying to find copies to sign in bookstores. It was a depressing and dismal attempt. I think I signed two copies in total. Nor could I find a single Lammy nominees table. I think it’s deplorable for a city like New York not to recognize the event. While LGBT-themed books that sell well are somewhat more prominent in bookstores than they once were, it’s the lesser-known books that need the boost.

The Bradford Fairfax mystery novels have been identified as campy, somewhat humorous mysteries, and set in exotic locations such as P’Town, or Provincetown, MA; Key West, FL  and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico? Where does your sense of humor come from? Are you as well-traveled as your protagonist?’

Ah, humour! It comes from the gods, I suspect. In high school, I was introduced to the classics: Laughing and Grief. I enjoy both equally. I am inspired by my travels, and can always be found laughing at (or with) something. I’m an ardent observer of human nature and consider myself a social critic. It’s the desire to make things better for the world and, at the same time, having learned to take life’s preposterousness with a grain of salt that ignites my sense of humour.

As for travels, I’ve been to all the places I’ve written about in both mystery series. I am often inspired to write because of the people I meet, the events I witness, as well as just by the sheer daydreaming that happens when I travel. The P-Town Murders was sparked by the realization that I was being spied on from next door by someone with binoculars while I lay naked in a Jacuzzi in my guest-house. As I like to say, I got out of the tub and flashed the guy, then had a flash of my own—that of writing a mystery about a guy being spied on in Provincetown. Bradford, incidentally, is named after one of P-town’s two main thoroughfares.

DeathInKeyWest

Much of what I write about in the mysteries comes close to being true, except for the so-called “main event.” It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say the books are memoirs of my vacations with a little murder thrown in. I certainly share many of Brad’s neuroses and can be just as goofy at times.

I must admit, I’m in love with Missing Persons Investigator, Dan Sharp. He comes across as so serious and professional, yet flawed with a darker, grittier side than Bradford Fairfax. Sharp is an alcoholic and suffers PTSD; I just want to pull him in and hold him tight until the sun comes up! But, I digress. What was your inspiration for penning such an outwardly masculine, yet complex and emotionally challenged protagonist?    

Feel free to hug me. While I’m not much of a drinker (pretty much a complete washout, as far that goes), like Dan, I’ve been unofficially diagnosed with Chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I initially scoffed at the idea, thinking it was something only soldiers and people who experienced war first-hand could have, but that is far from the truth. In fact, it’s likely that many in the LGBT community suffer to various degrees from the disorder. The classic triggers include, among other things, fear for our own safety or the safety of someone close to us. With gay bashing, and coming from a generation of gay men who confronted AIDS first-hand, we’ve all got our own horror stories to tell. As I say of Dan, you don’t have to have been to war to live in a warlike state of mind. That’s where Dan comes from. There was a time when I found myself hating the world and being reluctant to get up and go outside and confront life every day. I knew I was miserable, but I didn’t understand why. I considered myself a good, caring person who tried to help others and make the world a better place, but that didn’t make me feel better. I suspect that many LGBT suicides are connected to the disorder. Once I accepted the diagnosis, it made all the difference in terms of dealing with what I was feeling and experiencing. I now consider myself a survivor, and take up the issue front and centre in the next Dan Sharp book, The Jade Butterfly. It’s very much at the heart of what drives Dan.

Do you have plans for another novel in the Bradford Fairfax series?

I’m a very analytical writer. I knew by the time I finished The P-Town Murders there would be at least seven books, and possibly an eighth. As it turns out there will be eight, if I have time to finish them all. There are three out now. Bon Ton Roulez is the fourth, and it’s already complete. It will probably come out some time next year. It takes place in New Orleans not long after Hurricane Katrina, which is when I first visited that city. The eighth book to be conceived (but fifth in order of writing) is Havana Club. It surprised me, coming out of nowhere a couple years ago after a trip to Cuba where I hooked up with a straight Aussie guy who became a good friend as well as a character. I realized it wasn’t actually in the series, but rather takes place prior to the series, not long after Brad completes his secret agent training. A final book, Toronto the Bad, will complete the series and answer a few questions I’ve purposely left dangling up to now, including who or what is behind the secret organization Brad works for. All the books take place in LGBT-friendly cities (Havana is the exception to the “friendly” rule, though it seems to be slowly warming up), so there will also be future volumes set in Palm Springs and San Francisco.

Last question; can you share with us a little about your current release and/or WIP?

I mentioned the poetry book earlier. It has just come out. It is dedicated to my father, who died recently. I was grateful to the publisher for printing a single early copy in time for me to give it to him. He couldn’t talk much by the end, but I watched him as he held it and thumbed through it with a great deal of emotion. (JM – what an awesome feeling you must have had to share such a labor of love with your father…)

PumpkinEater

Earlier this year, I had two mysteries published, the second Dan Sharp mystery (Pumpkin Eater) and the third Bradford Fairfax mystery (Vanished in Vallarta.) A third Dan Sharp mystery, The Jade Butterfly, is already edited and in the can, as they say. It’s scheduled for a February 2015 publication.

I am currently writing the fourth Dan Sharp book, After the Horses, inspired by a real-life event in Toronto where the owner of a gay country and western bar was murdered. His lover was charged with his murder but not convicted. I’m working on a slightly different take of the story.

On behalf of the Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction Facebook Group, thank you so much for sharing your time with us and answering questions fans of the genre would like to know.

Many thanks for the opportunity! It’s inspiring to know such groups are active on-line. I wish you all happy reading and writing.

 

Find Jeffrey Round on the web:

www.jeffreyround.com

and

http://unvailed.com/category/a-writers-half-life/

 

 

 

Michael Craft Shares What He’s Been up to Since penning the Mark Manning Series

Interviewed by Jon Michaelsen  © 2014

 

Michael, thank you so much for taking time to answer some questions for members of the Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction Facebook group. 

Let’s start off with, where do you live?

Business1I live in Rancho Mirage, California, which is near Palm Springs. Prior to that, I lived for many years in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and prior to that, the Chicago area, where I grew up. I made my permanent move to California nine years ago.

Without getting too personal, would you share a little about your home life?

While home life isn’t generally very newsy, I’m delighted to report that I’m now happily married—because at last it’s legal. My husband, Leon, and I made it official last November. We chose the date, a Tuesday, because it marked what “would have been” our 31st anniversary.

What would you say is your greatest accomplishment to date? 

Having struggled 12 years to find a publisher for my first novel, Rehearsing, I found that accomplishment rather heady back in 1993. Then, having had the good fortune to publish another dozen novels in the 20 years since, that seems like a collective accomplishment worthy of mention as well. Honestly, though, simply being able to self-identify as an “author” or a “novelist”—that still thrills me.

Have you ever had to deal with homophobia after your novels were released, and if so, what forms has it taken?

Never. I don’t know whether to attribute this to dumb luck or to changing social mores, but I have never, at least to my knowledge, been the victim of homophobia. This may seem especially surprising, given that I emerged as a gay writer during the years when I lived in Wisconsin. But the Midwest is not nearly so provincial as many people tend to think.

LammySeal-actualsize_2013-e1377558848107

The three-time Lambda Award nominated Mark Manning mystery series is what fans have come to know you for, starting in 1997 with the release of Flight Dreams. Last year, to the excitement of many fans, the first five novels in the series were released in e-book format. Are you surprised by the series’ endurance after all these years?  

Sure, I’m surprised—and pleasantly, of course. It’s not only gratifying to know that the series “has legs,” but it’s also, for lack of a better word, validating. Writing, by its nature, is such a solitary pursuit, and writers (if I may stereotype) tend to be an insecure breed, having endured a lot of rejection before joining the ranks of the published. There’s always that nagging fear in the background that you just don’t have what it takes, that the story just isn’t good enough. So it’s wonderful and heartening to see the early work finding a new audience—or being discovered again by its original audience.

Can you share why you chose to end the Mark Manning series with the release of the seventh and final novel, Bitch Slap?

I had actually intended to end the series with the sixth installment, Hot Spot, but my publisher wanted more, and I complied. Looking back, I must have felt that this gave me the freedom to be more experimental with the seventh, and in fact Bitch Slap breaks a lot of the conventional mystery rules. To this day, I feel it’s the strongest book in the series and the best written of the bunch. Unfortunately, the title, which was my own bright invention, may have held the book back, and the cover, which was the publisher’s doing, simply fell flat.

Aside from those marketing considerations, I truly felt it was time to end the series because its “bigger story” had been told and was finished. Each installment dealt with a self-contained mystery plot (the whodunit, which I sometimes call the surface plot or the action plot), but the series as a whole also has an overarching “soul plot” that traces Manning’s coming out and evolution as a gay man—his evolution as a person, really. I left him exactly where I wanted him to be.

FlightDreamsIt’s been about ten years since the release of your last Manning novel. What has kept you so busy all these years?

Good question! And I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer. The last ten years have been a period of transition and reevaluation for me. I moved from Wisconsin to California. I left my fifties and entered my sixties. I ended my corporate years and began retirement. I went back to school, earned an MFA in creative writing, and have tried to hone my craft and bring it to the next level. I have experimented with both playwriting and screenwriting—including a two-year involvement with an independent film project—and then concluded that script writing is simply not my medium. This has been a valuable lesson that has brought my focus back to fiction. Having scratched those other itches, I now feel securely back on track.

Most important, I don’t feel that the past ten years have been in any sense wasted time, spinning my wheels. Rather, it was a necessary period of self-reflection and redirection that I would hope to characterize not as hibernation, but as growth.

Have you ever considered penning another gay mystery series or revisiting Mark Manning?

The book is closed, so to speak, on Mark Manning; as I mentioned above, I have left him where I want him to be. As for another gay mystery series, that’s not out of the realm of possibility, but I have no current plans to move in that direction. My most recent novel, The MacGuffin, is a stand-alone mystery, not intended as the basis for a series—not gay-centric either. I did invest a bit of work on a possible sequel to that one, but it just wasn’t working. Meanwhile, I’ve gotten really excited about exploring a slightly different direction. (More on this below.)

mcgruff

The MacGuffin is such a departure from your previous mystery series (Mark Manning and Claire Gray). Can you share a little about your influence to move mainstream with your most recent mystery novel?

Although there is a gay presence in The MacGuffin, neither the protagonist nor the narrative viewpoint is gay. Your word “mainstream” is a fair characterization. And while I have always self-identified as a gay writer, I sometimes add the caveat that I’m “a writer who happens to be gay.” In other words, I don’t feel duty-bound to write exclusively to a gay audience or to write exclusively about gay issues or interests. This springs naturally from my philosophical stance that the ultimate victory in the fight for gay rights is assimilation, not ghettoization. It’s a big world out there. We are part of it, and it is part of us.

It used to be that if you walked into a bookstore looking for gay-themed material, it was all shelved together (if they had it at all), away from its mainstream counterparts, as if reserved for a rarefied niche—which perhaps it was. Now, though, if you can find a bookstore, you can probably find gay authors mingled with authors of unspecified sexuality, as if it doesn’t matter—just as it should be.

Last question; can you share with us a little about your current release and/or WIP?

I’d love to. Over the last couple of years, I’ve “discovered” the short story, a venerable old medium to which I had previously paid little attention, either as a writer or as a reader. I’ve also become fascinated by an emerging hybrid medium that is variously referred to as “linked short stories” or “a novel in stories.” In such a collection, the individual stories serve a function similar to chapters, except that each story can stand alone, whereas the chapters of a novel cannot. Taken as a whole, however, the collected stories tell a larger story, much like a novel.

MCraft crop

And that’s my current project. I’m at work on such a collection, which will consist of about a dozen stories. There is a linking character who appears in every story, in roles ranging from central to peripheral. On the cusp of his 60th birthday, he is drawn out of the closet—so, yes, I’m wearing my gay-writer hat for this one. Many, but not all, of the stories are narrated through a gay lens.

I find this exciting because the collection allows me to utilize an array of viewpoint characters and narrative choices (third person vs. first; past tense vs. present), and it also allows me to tell the overarching story with a nonlinear timeline. Perhaps the biggest change for me, in terms of technique, is that I am writing largely without an outline, allowing the collection to grow organically as I write it. This has been enormously liberating. What’s more, these stories tend to be more character-driven than my mysteries, which are inherently plot-driven.

I’m hoping to complete the book-length draft by the end of this year. With any luck, it could be published next year. No working title yet. So stay tuned.

BitchSlap

On behalf of the Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction Facebook Group, thank you so much for sharing your time with us and answering questions fans of the genre would like to know.

And thank you, Jon, for the opportunity to share all these ramblings with your readers.

 

Find Michael Craft on the web: www.michaelcraft.com