Exclusive Excerpt of FlabberGassed: A Mister Puss Mystery by Michael Craft

Setting the scene:

The narrator is Brody Norris, a small-town architect who has stepped into the role of amateur sleuth in a local murder. He and his husband, Marson Miles, have invited an attractive new acquaintance, Dahr Ahmadi, to join them for dinner at their loft, hoping to get to know him better—and to sound him out as a possible suspect—but the evening ends with an unexpected development.

This scene is taken from the middle of the novel. Mister Puss, the cat in the series subtitle, winds his way in and out of the story—as cats are wont to do—but he does not appear in the following.

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Excerpt from FlabberGassed:

Some three hours after Dahr arrived at the loft, our evening together came to a close. A wonderful time, as they say, was had by all. Marson had charmed Dahr with his cooking and his small talk and his considerable skills as a gracious host. Dahr had charmed both Marson and me with his stories and his magnetism and his winks. Or were they tics? And apparently, I, Brody Norris, had all but charmed the pants off Dahr Ahmadi. It was not my intent to create an atmosphere of flirtation—I had simply tried to be amiable and welcoming—but Dahr must have tuned in to a more primal vibe.

When he arrived that night, we had greeted each other with handshakes and tentative hugs. Upon parting, however, we had cemented our friendship, so we forwent the handshakes altogether and hugged in earnest. And then, after the thank-yous and good-nights, Dahr offered kisses.

“May I, Mr. Miles?” he asked Marson outside the front door, leaning near for a smooch.

“With pleasure,” said my husband, and they exchanged a chaste peck.

“And Mr. Norris?” he said to me.

“Of course, Dahr.” We pecked.

Marson said, “Hope to see you again soon, Dahr. Good night.” And he turned inside to begin cleanup. It was not in his nature to leave things till morning.

Dahr asked me, “Walk me to my car?”

First Avenue was dead quiet—Saturday night, and our tiny town had “rolled up the sidewalks” already. A bit of evening drizzle had left the street dark and shiny. Yellow leaves glistened and dripped in the warm glow of a streetlamp. The soles of our shoes kissed the damp pavement. Then the man in black turned, and once again, he kissed me.

This was no tic. This was no ritual observation of some ancient parting custom handed down by Dahr’s Persian forebears. No, this was a kiss that meant business. This was a kiss that shot through me, that left me speechless and woozy and open to the unknown.

But then, without a word, he turned and left.

Shambling back to the loft, I wondered, What the hell was that? Was he making a statement? Was he challenging me? Daring me to fall for him?

Or was Dahr just using his wiles—buttering me up for a good report to Sheriff Simms?

When I stepped inside and closed the door, Marson looked up from the kitchen sink, merrily rinsing his way through a stack of dishes. “He’s such a sweet guy—what a great evening.”

Still a bit dazed, I confessed, “He kissed me.”

“He kissed me, too, kiddo.”

“I mean, he kissed me again, outside.”

“I’ve said it before, Brody: you’re an attractive man, desired by many.”

I took my explanation a step further. “I mean, he really kissed me.”

Marson gave a playful growl. “Yikes. Was it good?”

“Marson”—I moved toward him in the kitchen—“aren’t you … jealous?”

He set down his sponge. “Jealous? I’m complimented! Besides—” And he broke into laughter.

“Besides what?”

Marson grinned. “He’s not old enough for you.”

“Or”—I grinned—“he could be just the exception that proves the rule.”

#

Truth is, there were no rules, etched in stone or otherwise.

True, when I was fourteen, I had developed an abiding attraction to older, creative men. True, my first marriage had been to an older, creative man, an architect in California named Lloyd Washington. True, my current marriage was to an older, creative man, a Wisconsin architect named Marson Miles. True, this seemed to denote a pattern. But there were no rules.

True, Dahr Ahmadi was perhaps two or three years older than I was, but this did not qualify him as an “older man.” In the generational scope of things, we were contemporaries. Dahr was a certified nurse practitioner, a respected professional with a noble and humane calling, but this did not qualify him as a “creative man.” He was a man of science. So it was easy to understand Marson’s confident assumption that, in my eyes, Dahr could never measure up. But there were no rules.

True, Marson and I were married. The conventions of marriage—of conventional, heterosexual marriage—demand a lifelong commitment of body, soul, and desire, frequently sworn in vows at the altar, which can lend poignancy to a fairytale ceremony. But even the most earnest exchange of vows offers no guarantee that reality will not evolve and intervene. And the truth is, for us—for any gay couple, married or not—there were no rules, other than those we were content to define for ourselves.

True, Marson and I had written “vows” and delivered them at our tidy civil ceremony, but they were sworn to no god. They focused on an abiding love, which sprang from friendship, and a commitment to “be there” for each other in a joining of forces till death do us part. But they made no reference to carnal fidelity, which struck us both as an irrelevant hangover from some medieval obsession with procreation. So for us, in the matter of Dahr Ahmadi, there were no rules.

True, we had a shadowy understanding that indiscretion could be hurtful to each other and therefore harmful to “us.” Did such an understanding therefore imply that any contemplated indiscretion should simply be replaced by discretion, by the venerable bromide that what you don’t know can’t hurt you?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that the memory of Dahr’s kiss—the second one, out on the street, under the drizzle in the yellow lamplight—vexed me and excited me and consumed my thoughts from the moment I stepped back into the loft on Saturday night. It followed me up the winding staircase as I prepared for bed. It stirred beneath the blankets as I cuddled with my husband, who drifted off, exhausted by his efforts to stage the perfect dinner party. It staved off my own sleep, and when at last I slumbered, the memory of the kiss peppered my dreams with possibilities. This was temptation, pure and raw and simple.

Learn more about author Michael Craft:

www.michaelcraft.com

Click on title below to access the interivew I did with Michael Craft in 2014.

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

 

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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