Death Vows: Richard Stevenson

The good news is that Don Strachey has returned for his ninth adventure. The great news is that it is every bit as good as his prior eight cases. Possibly no other gay mystery writer has maintained such uniformly high consistency. Don’s return was delayed by the disappearance of Haworth Press. The house had planned to reissue the entire series in conjunction with its reincarnation as a miniseries on Here! Television starring Chad Allen (four of the novels should be on film by the time you read this review), climaxing the publishing project with this new novel. MLR Press has stepped in to take over, and now promises yet a tenth to come.

As always, the author is deeply concerned here with the various issues facing gays in our struggle for equal rights. Often Stevenson has portrayed the problems of coming out, particularly in church-driven small towns. Above all, he has focused on homophobia within the family. Before this present case is over – though we will catch glimpses of a rather unexpected example of good parenting – there will be disturbing portraits of three cases of dysfunctional families who are willing to let personal agendas deny them the happiness of fully knowing their sons. Curiously, in Strachey’s experience it is the mothers who are particularly virulent in their refusal to acknowledge their children’s sexuality. The case itself becomes, in an offbeat way, a celebration of the right of same-sex couples in Massachusetts to marry. Bill Moore and Barry Fields have announced that they intend to tie the knot in Great Barrington on September 26.
Jim Sturdivant fears for Bill’s safety, or at least so he says. Barry’s previous lover had died, an apparent suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, but Jim is convinced Barry murdered him. So he telephones the Albany-based sleuth to see if he can handle cases in Massachusetts and, upon receiving an affirmative, asks Don to investigate Barry’s past. Don agrees with reluctance; it’s not usual for an uninvolved person to hire a private investigator. He begins delving, to learn that neither fiance existed in public records before 2000, nor did Barry’s best friend, Bud Radziwill. At the end of the novel, a character says: “This looks like the cast of Casablanca. I’ve never seen so many people with secrets in one place before. God, I can barely remember who’s really who in here.”
When the murder comes, however, it is the last person Jim Sturdivant expected to be killed. As a result more comes out initially about Jim’s past and that of his partner than does about Barry’s, Bill’s, or Bud’s. Don realizes that, if he is ever going to get at the truth of who is responsible, he must sort out all the various identities. He starts tying a number of comments that characters let drop together with people and events in recent American history, and suddenly everything falls into place. One of the pleasant aspects of this mystery is that several times Don, for plausible reasons (his partner, Timothy Callahan, remains in Albany; the local police officer needs to be brought into the loop), has to summarize what he has discovered to that point. His recapitulations help the reader focus on the case step by step.

Stevenson is one author who is willing to take on unsympathetic politicians who cloy the American system. This case is set in 2006. Strachey makes no bones about what he thinks of the likes of such figures as Dick Chenny, Rick Santorum, Antonin Scalia, and Gale Norton. Presumably libel laws forced Stevenson to have to (barely) disguise some others whose contributions to American history are beyond the pale. Don quips at one point about his and Timmy’s relationship, “We’ve got exactly the kind of marriage the anti-gay religious right says is needed for social stability, proving that they are full of shit. We’re both proud of that.” Stevenson (and his own Massachusetts husband) can be proud of his novel.

Death Vows
Richard Stevenson
MLR Press / $14.99
ISBN 978-1-934531-33-4
Paperback, 198 pp.