Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Bad Books: Death of a Constant Lover

by Lev Raphael.

I keep on nearly loving this book. And then getting annoyed by it.

Brief plot summary: A gay academic in his forties is occasionally distracted from cooking elaborate meals with his perfect boyfriend by grisly murders on campus.

I thought this book would be lovely. I liked the idea of a gay detective book. I liked the idea of academic infighting. I do not like this book.

For one thing, it's terribly politically correct - but in a touchy-feely-me-me-me way. The hero is perpetually agonising over being supportive enough. His boyfriend is psychologically tormented by suddenly discovering that he's Jewish and can't forgive his parents for concealing this fact from him. He's not so much haunted by the fact that they survived the holocaust, as that they tried to shield their son from the horror of their past. Which just reads... well, odd.

Periodically, the hero's sister phones. She's on her way to therapy, and the two discuss issues. Or talk about how they suspect his neighbours are "repressing".

Every fifty pages or so, someone remembers there's been a terrible murder on campus. There's a pause. Some sharing. And then we move on to the hero's selfish worrying about how his involvement in the investigation could ruin his career, or worse, supper.

This is a book of lists and labels. People aren't just well dressed - we get an inventory: "Stefan had a lightweight green-and-brown Jhane Barnes sweater and a Kenneth Cole brown suede shirt, though he never wore them together."

The same thing happens when there's cooking (and there's a lot of cooking). I think this book is written by a man who likes cooking, but loves cleaning. Witness: "Didier had equipped their kitchen very well. Sub Zero fridge, thirty-two bottle wine refrigerator, chrome delixe Cusinart, convection oven, KitchenAid mixer, Dualit taoster, Gaggia espresso machine, Henckel knives, Calphalon cookware.... By the stove a cookbook stood open in a plastic protective stand."

Ignore the list of martian cookery utensils. Let's just concentrate on the phrase "a cookbook stood open in a plastic protective stand" - this would be fascinating if it was making a telling point against the character (ie, you can tell he's emotionally sterile because of the clinical way in which he cooks) - in the same way that you'd learn a lot about a passionate character from hearing "perched on the stove was a cookbook stained with ingredients". This information is purely there to reassure the fussy reader that everything was nice and tidy. Shudder.

Similarly passionless is the description of the hero and his boyf watching a film. "After dinner, we stumbled into the living room and dug out the cassette of that quintessential 1930s romantic comedy: Midnight with Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Francis Lederer, Hedda Hopper and Rex O'Malley." This is an IMDB listing, not descriptive prose. This tells us NOTHING about the film, or what it means to the heroes. There's another five lines before we learn that the film was set in Paris. Which is a detail at least.

It's all so teeth-pulling. Not least of which because there is a lot of the book that is fascinating and interesting. There are some fascinatingly unsettling characters, such as Delaney, an impossibly beautiful, frightentingly perceptive grad student, who looms through the book, unnerving and yet captivating every character he meets. Imagine Steerpike with social skills and a gold card, and you're kind of there.

There's Nick's head of department, a wonderfully bland woman who refuses to produce any emotional response ever, even when accused of murder.

And then there's the whole idea of gay detectives. I'm rivetted by the idea of Alan Cumming starring in a series about crime-solving decorators. The whole idea nudges on what this book is missing... just a little bit of gay fab.

I'm not asking it to be an out-and-out campfest (although, perhaps I am) - I'm just looking for the heroes to use their gay powers to solve crimes. There's not a hint of "You can tell she's a witch - just look at her heels!". There is no scene in which the heroes stand in their neighbours kitchen and tut "He *must* have killed her here. This room's never been so well cleaned. He's even done the cabinets." At no moment do they glare at a man and say "Come on sugar, you're having an affair - you've lost weight and you've stopped wearing polo shirts. Something's up."

It's all just supportive, positive, bland self-affirmation. Except for one line. One line that gives you a hint of what the book could have been....

"Stefan turned to me, quoting Sigourney Weaver's immortal line from Ghostbusters: 'Take me now, subcreature.' "

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