As you may know, I don’t tend to enjoy gay detective fiction. I find the wish-fulfilment, the nostalgia, the cliquiness, and the attempts to imitate and seek approval from ‘straight’ crime fiction at best disappointing and at worst painful. Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve found a series of three American gay detective novels I don’t hate.
A couple of weeks ago, at a spiritual festival (of all things) in Norwich Library, I noticed a copy of Rick Copp’s The Actor’s Guide to Greed (2003). It looked so camp and colourful and bloody American that I thought I’d look it up. So I did, and learnt about Copp’s series featuring Jarrod Jarvis, a former child-star in Hollywood. Copp is a screenwriter, so I figured that there’d be a bit more nuance than usual to the actor-hero trope. Besides, I have always thought that a former child star would make a great detective: it solves the problem of them needing to be young and rich enough to go anywhere, but also without having the obstruction of a day job and with access to closed communities and enough of a chequered past to be interesting.
Thinking, ‘why not?’, I ordered all three books in the series, of which The Actor’s Guide to Murder is the first and The Actor’s Guide to Greed is the last. I read them all quickly and enjoyed the escapism. The writing is slightly cynical but mostly very gentle and not technically very good. It sounds odd, but sometimes, if I’m after sheer escapism, I don’t want good writing. I don’t want to be sticking post-it notes on pithy phrases or rereading immersive passages, I just want to rattle along with the story. So shoot me: I’m middlebrow.
The plot in this third book sees Copp’s bag of tricks starting to wear thin, and I understand why he turned to other things at this point. It’s a kind of fusion of the first two plots with some ambitious elements underpinning the story. Jarrod and his LAPD boyfriend Charlie find themselves drawn to London’s West End, as Jarrod’s latest hope for a comeback rests on a supporting role in a new murder mystery drama. There is camp humour in abundance here, but the thing that really tickled me was how completely and utterly bizarre the atuhor’s idea of England is. The idea that the West End would be jumping at the chance to stage a play called Murder Can Be Civilised, the first line of which is ‘More tea and crumpets, sir?’; that they could assemble a cast full of Hollywood a-listers, Bollywood a-listers, a thinly-veiled Judi Dench, a thinly-veiled Emma Thompson, and a thinly-veiled Ian McKellan; that they would then put up every single cast member in a private suite at the Savoy for the whole three month run … it’s just hilarious!
Before long, of course, one of the cast is murdered. On stage (how else?), and Jarrod finds himself falling under suspicion. A strange thing follows. In Britain, we view American media coverage of crimes with horror – in the name of ‘free speech’, people spew their hot takes on whatever crime is in the news, regardless of facts or defamation. My boss, Sophie Hannah, was so affected by this in the case of the kidnapping of Casey Anthony that she wrote a book about it (Did You See Melody?). But, apparently, at least some Americans think that we do it worse in Britain?! I think based on all the stuff that appeared after Diana, Princess of Wales’ death, Copp has the British tabloid relentlessly pursuing our intrepid hero, splashing about direct accusations of murder on their front pages – something that’s not only never done, but is also completely illegal.
Anyway, he survives it and uncovers the truth. Now – I solved the first two Copp/Jarvis mysteries simply by fixing on the least likely suspect, rather than looking for evidence. Since that method had served me well, I tried it again here… and got it wrong. In this book, Copp does something that Ruth Rendell mastered: the double-twist. By this, I mean, he gives us a big twist that we have probably seen coming, and then, while we’re patting ourselves on the back for having got one up on the author, he throws another twist at us, catching us completely off-guard. In fact, the least-likely-suspect theory wouldhave served me well, if I hadn’t committed the cardinal sin of completely overlooking someone as a suspect.
Gayness is woven into every fibre of the plot here and in Copp’s other two books. However, they do not explore or engage with gay communities. Not at all; in fact, it’s a very homonormative set-up: Jarrod is in a monogamous long-term relationship, living comfortably with a dog (child-substitute). His best friend is a straight woman who talks through boy troubles with him. These books are never going to rally the queer revolution. One thing that interests me about the detective’s domestic arrangement, though, is that – for no apparent reason – he lives in an inverted house. That is to say, the living area is upstairs and the sleeping area is downstairs. I’m not overly sure of the point of this, but it’s almost as if there’s something self-consciously imitative about this actor’s straight-American-dream aspirations.
This book (and the two that came before) were just what I needed at a stressful time. They made me smile, not always for the right reasons, and I enjoyed them very much. However, it is the gayness that makes them interesting, so I will not be rushing out to buy Rick Copp’s straight mysteries, written under the name Lee Hollis.