A dueling guest review by Jeff Pearce
Review Summary: An intriguing debut for a series that could use better characterization and bolder departure from the noir genre’s stock attributes.
Wealthy San Francisco playboy Brett Sheridan thinks he knows the score when he hires tough guy private eye Neil Patrick Rafferty to find a priceless stolen folio of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Brett’s convinced his partner-in-crime sister is behind the theft — a theft that’s liable to bring more scandal to their eccentric family, and cost Brett his marriage to society heiress Juliet Lennox. What Brett doesn’t count on is the instant and powerful attraction that flares between him and Rafferty.
Once before, Brett took a chance on loving a man, only to find himself betrayed and broken. This time around there’s too much at risk. But as the Bard himself would say, Journey’s end in lovers meeting.
I was cleaning my .45 Smith & Wesson to a buff shine when Wave asked me to do this review. She walked into my office, an explosion of high heels and lipstick. Her hips waved a happy hello…
Well, no, she didn’t, but the above (half ripped off from Mickey Spillaine) sort of sums up the challenge of writing anything in a gay noir vein. Even casual lines can push a sincere work into pastiche. All those slanted fedoras on the heads of tough guy private dicks and mobsters. And Josh Lanyon has set himself a very high bar indeed, billing This Rough Magic as the first book in a “new lightly comic mystery series set in 1930s San Francisco” which is his take on The Thin Man films.
So to review a short novel like this means addressing two separate issues. One, does it do what it sets out to do, i.e. live up to the spirit of the mysteries it’s emulating? And Two, is it an enjoyable read for its own sake?
I don’t how many readers give a damn about Issue One. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. I’m a fan of the Thin Man films, hardboiled detectives and everything 1930s, so to me, it’s an incredibly cool concept that prompted me to rush out to read his novel. And if Josh Lanyon is going to bill his work in that lofty company, we should explore the question.
First, for those who don’t know the Thin Man films, let alone the original novel, they’re great fun. Dashiell Hammett made a departure from his Sam Spade and Continental Op thrillers for a more lighthearted mystery featuring Nick and Nora Charles. Nick is a retired PI who’s clever and drinks. Nora’s a wealthy socialite—who also drinks, though not nearly as much as Nick. The films were huge successes because of the great chemistry and witty dialogue given to William Powell and Myrna Loy, and every wisecracking adventure couple from Hart to Hart to Mr. and Mrs. Smith owes to this inspiration.
So This Rough Magic and its resulting books will all hinge on the relationship between Lanyon’s gay sleuths stepping in for the husband and wife roles.
Alas, the two heroes show a lot of potential, but they’re not quite focussed in their debut. Brett Sheridan is likeable enough as the wealthy playboy closet case, and we can see he’s got that endearing streak of quiet courage that will make him invaluable to his more experienced private eye lover. Rafferty is more of the problem and a puzzle. Lanyon seems to have modelled him too closely on the typical hardboiled detective prototype than the witty, semi-retired Nick Charles. Like the fedora-wearing cliché, he’s got rough features and he drinks; it’s hardly a surprise to learn he’s Irish or that he grew up in an orphanage. Even when Rafferty casually spouts a bit of triva on how deer attack more humans than bears, explaining, “I like to read…. I’m a naturally curious fellow,” this sounds like vintage Philip Marlowe, brooding over his chessboard problems.
The over-faithfulness, for lack of a better way to put it, carries over into the storytelling with mixed results. Early on, when we follow Brett, the narrative is either neutral or sounds like F. Scott Fitzgerald dashing off a quick family tableau scene for The Saturday Evening Post. When we follow Rafferty, we often shift into Raymond Chandler gear. Sometimes it’s as smartass brilliant as anything Chandler could tap out. For instance: “After a calculated interval, a butler who looked like a close relative of Bela Lugosi came to the door and inquired, in a high-hat British accent, what Rafferty required. Rafferty required an audience with that man of affairs, William Lennox. Dracula regretted that Mr. Lennox was not available.”
This is great stuff, but the pity is that all the cleverness is in the narrative when what we’ve been sold is the idea of a gay Nick and Nora—sorry, Nick and Nick. Where’s the clever repartee? The first sparkle in any banter between them pops up in the last third of the book when a drunken Brett is questioning Rafferty:
“You’re a foundling?”
“I was. Technically, I think I’m too old now days.”
More moments like this, please. If it sounds like asking too much, consider that for a master storyteller like Lanyon, after a decade of successful m/m fiction, we have to move the goal posts. There are some genuine flashes of storytelling brilliance, and he’s at his best when he almost completely forgets the time period. Writing anything set in a different era is hard—you have to drop your reader into the decade without constantly drawing undue attention to it, which can paradoxically yank your reader right out. The problem is that even the 1930s weren’t like the 1930s, certainly not the machine-gun toting, quaint slang version that’s been recycled down to us through movies and TV shows until it’s a shadow of itself.
Lanyon is at his best when he practices restraint. A clearly well researched Coca-Cola ad dings the right bell, but when high society playboys use a term like ‘gat’ (which no one in the decade ever really used anyway), ehhhhh…. There’s the sound of tin. Later, an Asian character is referred to as “The Oriental.” I get that this is for authenticity of voice, and I’m no fan of political correctness, but there are times when it would be good to sacrifice the verisimilitude for more elegant, modern phrasing.
So Lanyon has to decide whether he wants his series to conjure up our cliché ideas of the hardboiled detectives of fiction or break new ground to plant his characters in richer, more authentic and interesting soil. For instance, his two lovers exist in a kind of vacuum of loneliness, as if they’re the only two gay guys in Frisco, and no doubt, real homosexuals back then probably often felt like that. But wouldn’t it be great for Lanyon to explore the noirish queer subculture that must have slowly percolated in the city with all its potential for blackmail schemes and double-crosses?
True, just because it’s m/m romance doesn’t mean the plot has to focus on gay issues. But a stolen Shakespeare folio, while fun, was a plot we could expect from any detective story, and as mentioned earlier, there’s hardly any fun dialogue. The tone is closer to sipped Scotch in a dive bar than bubbly champagne at a high society party (where the sleuthing Charles couple would go). With that kind of dark and lonely tone, let’s change out of the tuxedo altogether and hit the dark alleys.
Again, how much any of this matters to the reader depends on whether they’ve picked up the novel based on his pitch over the era or just to have a fun read with no expectations. Is it a fun read? Definitely, even with the sketchy characters. Lanyon’s many die-hard fans who are on auto-buy won’t be disappointed. But for the rest of us, it’s somewhat annoying that key suspects are “off screen” for so long, only to be reintroduced pages and pages later when they’re summoned for the solution. Brett and Rafferty prove to be equally clever, which bodes well for their future cases. Do we give a damn about who stole the Shakespeare folio? Not really—and it’s just as well. There’s a great story of how the moviemakers for The Big Sleep in 1939, weighed down by the twisting, complicated plot, realized that one murder in the novel didn’t make any sense and cabled Raymond Chandler to ask who killed that particular guy. Chandler cabled back something like, “I have no idea.”
The case is less important than our heroes, and while Josh Lanyon hasn’t given us a new Nick and Nick Charles yet, he might give us a great gay Marlowe and sidekick in book two and three. If he doesn’t quite pull it off, they’ll still be fun reads, and he should be commended for trying.
So don’t sweat this review, buddy. Take your finger off the trigger of that .45 and have a drink. Just forget it, pal. It’s Chinatown.