Title: How to Greet Strangers: A Mystery
Author: Joyce Thompson
Publisher: Lethe Press
Amazon: Buy Link How to Greet Strangers: A Mystery
Genre: gay fiction/mystery
Length: 246 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Sirius
Summary: Frustrating read – mostly because it was very well written, but I could not enjoy it as much as I wanted to.
Archer Barron is rebuilding his life after hiding from it for years. Once he had grand expectations—graduating law school, donning drag to express his feminine aspects, and the love of a devoted boyfriend—but fate became cruel. HIV-positive cruel. And a growing involvement with an Oakland Santería priestess who promised a cure in return for devotion and a lot of cash. His lover died. His faith and spirit almost followed.
Now Archer works a sorry job as a university night watchmen and volunteers at a free clinic. The walls he’s built in the years since his loss are about to come crumbling down when a former member of the Santería family he belonged to comes seeking legal help. And then the police discover the body of the priestess. Archer’s grudge makes him a prime suspect.
In Joyce Thompson’s newest novel, How To Greet Strangers, the Bay Area welcomes a new detective: he’s black, he’s spiritual, he’s stunning. And he’s in great danger.
I often feel frustrated when I am unable to enjoy a book written by a writer who undoubtedly knows her craft very well and this was the case with this book. I wanted a gritty realistic mystery, I wanted to read something that may make me learn something new about a culture I do not belong to, and I wanted to read about a fascinating main character. This book based on editorial blurbs seemed to fit the bill. I can easily see it being a five star read for another reader, but unfortunately it ended up being a rather mixed bag for me. I think I just do not have a coherent picture of the book in my head, but here are some points that stand out for me as best as I can articulate them.
For quite a large chunk of the story I did not care for Archer. Oh I did not hate him or anything like that, and I could see easily that he was a very decent guy, but at the same time I just could not relate to him. I wondered if part of it was because his cultural roots are different from mine. I however rejected that idea and fast, because I know for a fact that I do not need for a character to have the same origins and background as I do (that would become boring very fast). Quite the contrary, I love reading about the characters who do not have the same background as I do, and I prefer to do so in fact. It would have been so easy to figure it out if Archer had committed some wrong which I could not forgive – it is not a spoiler to say that he is not a killer- so that idea went out of the window as well.
As the story progressed I started to care for him a little bit – I think the flashbacks about him and his boy friend and his past history helped, but it was not enough for me. Then I wondered if I simply wanted to see him show more emotion? I truly do not know – sometimes there are reactions to a story we cannot explain.
I think in part I did not care about Archer because the book spends too much time describing Archer’s relationship with his religion, which is not really a religion, but mostly a cult which exploits people’s pain and suffering and takes money from people in pain in exchange to empty promises. But at times I was not sure if this is what the book intended me to think about that “religion”. In other words while I certainly understood Archer’s initial involvement with that due to his lover’s illness (of course when we are desperate we will do anything to try to save a loved one), I thought he spent too much time thinking and debating it as if it was a real faith deserving and worthy of consideration. Maybe I misinterpreted his ramblings, but this is the impression I got and for that reason I spent half a book wondering what gives. I was bored too even if it felt real.
As you can see the word “mystery” is in the title of the book and there is indeed a murder, which is being investigated. However for a while I was not sure why the book was called a mystery since not so much of investigation if any was shown. When it picked up after dragging on at the middle, the mystery aspect was more visible, but the final revelation was strange to me. It was in my opinion incredibly random and I do not think foreshadowed by the text properly or at all. While I suspect that maybe the writer used the construct of the mystery to explore the religious and cultural questions more than anything else and she probably was not concerned with the well constructed mystery much, I still feel disappointed.