A wonderful mystery that I never knew existed…
I wasn’t aware of the short Daniel Valentine/Clarisse Lovelace series back when the four books first came out in “real paper” editions, back in the 1980s. At that time, I couldn’t buy many books (graduate students tend to have limited funds) and I never saw any of them at my local library. Now I’m happy that Felony & Mayhem Press has re-issued all four as e-books, and granted me a review copy of the first one, Vermilion. And authors Michael McDowell and Dennis Schuetz, collaborating as Nathan Aldyne, have simply written a great murder mystery.
Billy Golacinsky is a 19-year-old male hustler who somehow ends up dead on the lawn of a right-wing politician, Mario Scarpetti. Scarpetti has just been instrumental in defeating a bill that would have made discrimination against homosexuals unlawful in the areas of public housing and employment. Are the two possibly connected? Or is this just another semi-random killing of a lost youth on the street – whether straight or gay? Or is something else entirely going on? While Scarpetti tries to milk the event for political benefit, Daniel Valentine, a bartender at the upscale club, Bonaparte’s, realizes that he actually saw and spoke with Billy on the evening that he died, while walking his friend Clarisse’s dog. But the cop investigating the murder, Lieutenant Searcy, manages rub Daniel and Clarisse the wrong way – although Clarisse does think he’s “cute for a cop”. And so they sort of seem to slide into investigating on their own.
The rest of the book is a wonderful tour through the early days of the gay community in Boston in the 1980s as Daniel and Clarisse talk to people and slowly figure out what happened. In some ways, as a long-time Robert B Parker/Spenser reader, this Boston already felt familiar to me. And although sometimes books that are promoted as diverse can overdo the diverseness, and miss out on the need to also tell a good story, McDowell and Schuetz don’t fall into that trap. I enjoyed the plot, the characters, and the atmosphere – in fact, I enjoyed pretty much everything about Vermilion.
Although originally published in 1980, sadly, much of this book could still have been written yesterday. The plight of runaways trying to make a living on the streets, the intolerant rhetoric of right-wing politicians, the suspicions attached to people who are different in some way – all are still present in today’s society. I try not to give too many five-star reviews, but Vermilion gets five from me, both for its chops as a murder mystery and for its portrayal of time and place. Now I’m very much looking forward to reading the remaining three books in the series. And my thanks to Felony & Mayhem Press and to Edelweiss for the review copy.