A Guest review by Victor J. Banis
Summary Review: Someone is torching the city’s gay bars, and one of the dispossessed owners asks public relations maven Dick Hardesty to ask about and see what he can discover.
So is launched one of the longest running—and arguably one of the best—detective series in contemporary gay fiction.
Life’s Joys and Pleasures are not always evenly distributed among us. If you think otherwise, Tinker Bell, you may have been hanging too long with The Tooth Fairy.
In the reading world, things divide rather neatly between those who have long enjoyed Dorien Grey’s Dick Hardesty mysteries, and those who have not yet availed themselves of the pleasure. For a time, it seemed as if that happy experience was to be forever denied the latter unfortunates—the books were out of print, their original publisher out of business.
Cue the guy on the white horse. Zumaya Boundless Editions has undertaken to reissue them, in both print and e-book editions, starting with this, the first of the series. Now is the time to applaud, kids.
I have heard this author’s work described as old-fashioned, and indeed, I suppose that is apt—if, by old-fashioned, you mean that it has a solidly constructed plot, front to back, the prose is lucid and good to the ears, and the characters are believable and matter to us. In other words, the Dick Hardesty mysteries are old fashioned in the sense that so is strawberry shortcake with globs of whipped cream on top. Yes, the effetes will scorn, even as they’re reaching for their spoons. What I am trying to tell you is that The Butcher’s Son is a real spoonful.
Someone is torching the city’s gay bars (in a series-long conceit, the author never names the city, so readers can place the action more or less where they choose; but I don’t think you’d be too far afield if you supposed it was Chicago.) Dick Hardesty and Chris are a couple at the start, but Chris has gotten the seven year itch a couple of years early, as the author cleverly puts it. Sound familiar? These are people most of us know, which is one of the book’s strengths. Dick is not yet the detective he later becomes and instead is working in a public relations firm and finds himself with the assignment of guiding the mayoral run of a very right wing politician.
I’m not going to go into the details of the plot because, for me, that is half the fun of reading a novel, especially a mystery novel and I don’t want a roadmap in advance telling me where I will be going. Suffice to say that there is plenty of action and no shortage of twists and surprises as the author carries his readers along until, voila, they are exactly where he wanted them to be and they are surprised to discover where he has brought them, as if by magic – but of course the only magic is in the skill of the writer. Along the way the reader gets well acquainted with a large cast of characters—in particular a group of drag performers including a very talented but mysterious “Judy,” a homophobic politician or two, a dead twin and a live but closeted one, some winners and some decided losers—and gets treated to some clever dialogue. And, yes, there are some seriously heavy duty scenes. Well, think it through. Gay bars being torched, people trapped in fires. This isn’t Arsenic and Old Lace, in other words. And, yes, that ending to which he brings the reader is a surprise one, but that won’t surprise anyone familiar with this author’s work.
On a side note: I know that some readers are not happy if gay fiction does not include some hot man on man action, and I am afraid those readers are doomed to be disappointed here. In my opinion, however, that is the author’s choice, and frankly, I don’t think this book (or the others in the series) would benefit at all from being jazzed up. Sort of like asking Miss Marple to do a strip tease. It will get your attention, but not necessarily in the best way. The book isn’t sterile, there is some action, but it mostly happens after the curtain is closed. The overall impression of the Hardesty books is somewhat gentlemanly—deliberately, I suspect—and that works well with these characters and their stories.
All in all, I recommend The Butcher’s Son highly, and I don’t think an astute reader will be sorry if he immerses himself in the whole series. A writer can’t guarantee that every book in a series is going to please to the same degree as every other, but I think the author has done an admirable job of maintaining a level of quality likely to satisfy the discerning.