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What is a series novelist to do when his main character is a private investigator, and the author realizes he is now more interested in developing character relationships than he is in adhering to the usual conventions of a mystery novel? The archetypal mystery, like the archetypal western, is strange in that the novel's main character is not the character central to setting the plot afoot. It may be the detective's case, but the perpetrator controls the direction that case is taking. Yet increasingly Dorien Grey seems more interested in his protagonist's homelife than in the case he is handed to solve.
The twelfth Dick Hardesty novel is plotted like an old-fashioned cozy, but the perpetrator is so obvious that readers will feel they have really been engaged in an inverted mystery. Not that it has ever been particularly difficult to spot the villain in a Grey mystery; however, not even a token red herring appears here. In theory some five people have motive enough to have planted the bomb that dispatches the victim, but quite early the reader knows only one needs to be considered seriously. The question becomes not so much how Dick will apprehend the villain as when he will admit he knows his identity. Proud of his little family, Dick doesn't want to believe that anyone who is nice to them could be guilty of committing murder. So he refuses to face the obvious.
The Grey universe is a moral one, and victims are seldom innocents. Generally, they are marked long before they are dispatched. Grant Jefferson has served as a disruptive influence from the moment he joined the Gay Men's Chorus. An aspiring musical comedy actor, he delights in stirring up little rivalries and undermining the director's authority, all the while reminding members that his "uncle" is the principal donor financing the organization. When Grant tries to wrest the solo part from Jim Bowers in the chorus's rendition of Jerry Herman's stirring anthem "I Am What I Am" and then Jim is injured, almost killed, when a blue Porsche much like the one Grant drives crashes into Jim's and disappears, the Grey fan knows Grant's hours are numbered.
On the other hand, Grey's true murderers are often complex. In the past we often got intimate portraits of their personalities (in part, because Dick in his pre-monogamous days had a tendency to bed them before apprehending them). Though we learn quite a bit about the perpetrator in this case, including glimpses into the factors that turned him into a sociopath, the tight first-person narrative, in Dick's voice, does not permit us to know him as deeply as a reader might wish. In particular, unlike in the earlier Hardesty cases, one never learns exactly what triggered the murderer to become some self-appointed avenger of perceived wrongs.
Here, what really interests the author is the family unit Dick has created, in particular the dynamics of that relationship when it comes under threat from another male. Dick's partner, Jonathan Quinlan, some years younger than he, continues to grow into becoming his own person. He is juggling being a father-figure to his five-year-old nephew and ward, Joshua Quinlan, working at a landscaping firm, going to night school to get his horticulture degree, and performing as a member of the chorus. He, even more than Dick, always believes the best of everyone. Dick continues to discover the joys of monogamy and the increasingly pleasures of parenting. Joshua acts like the five year old he is, though he, better than his guardians, knows instinctively whom not to trust.
Their day-to-day domesticity is charming, a happy antidote to the bromides American politicians are content to utter anytime the subject of gay civil unions comes up. But one must enjoy reading about little everyday pleasures and stresses, though magnified since they occur in a relationship not sanctioned by the state, in order to enjoy the novel. If questions such as where a gay couple with a preschool kid might go for a night out and which restaurants are appropriate for a non-traditional family play a lesser role than that of who killed Grant, such concerns still make up a very large part of the novel's tissue.
The novel also contains information about con artists in the art world. One gets a glimpse of a gay relationship that is decidedly less compatible than Dick and Jonathan's. Marty Gresham, the straight detective with a gay teenage son, as usual plays an important role, and the son makes a cameo appearance. Other friends from Dick's past play minor parts. None gets fleshed out to any extent. One waits to see what will happen if and when Grey breaks out of the traditional confines of the mystery mode in which he currently seems stifled.
Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, October 2008
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