In his fifth novel and first foray into the murder mystery, Michael Thomas Ford proves he is not only one of our very best writers but already master of the mystery genre. Though the book’s short chapters might make it ideal for a long airplane ride, its deeply satisfying psychological complexity rules it out as a choice for a mindless beach or poolside read. This is a novel to be savored. Of the eight main characters, only one is gay. Psychically scarred by a cold, unfeeling authoritarian father, he has become a directionless drug addict, peddling his body to score his next fix. Yet Billy McCloud retains an innocence and a childlike directness that make him the spiritual center of the story. It is what he remembers that leads to the murderer.
The townspeople have assumed that Sheriff Dan McCloud killed himself after sending a letter to his wife saying that he wanted to spare his family of watching him suffer from a terminal cancer. But then his body shows up eight years later buried in a trunk. Clearly he was murdered, and it quickly becomes clear to the reader that any one of seven people could have wished him dead. His two sons, his daughter, and his wife all had suffered under his arrogant and controlling thumb. So had three other teenagers whom he had bullied. Could one of them have been driven to shooting him?
His older son, James, becomes the chief suspect when his class ring is discovered in the trunk along with the murder weapon. Did he finally get fed up with his father’s dictating whom he could date and when? Or could it have been Dan’s daughter, Celeste, who was treated similarly? What about her boyfriend, a shady character always in trouble with the law? Or perhaps it was James’s girlfriend, Nancy, who disappeared mysteriously soon after the sheriff’s own disappearance. What about Nancy’s stepbrother, who certainly seemed capable of bearing a grudge? He had a rivalry with James then; now he is the sheriff responsible for arresting James. And then there is Dan’s wife, whom Celeste overheard accusing her father of adultery. Could it even have been Billy, driven to murderous rage by his father’s disdain for his “sissiness?”
These people, plus James’s current girlfriend, Charly (a lawyer who flies in to help defend him), are all trying — or, in the case of the murderer, appearing to try — to find the full truth about what happened eight years ago. With so many “detectives” at work, there are many red herrings to keep readers on their toes. False leads crop up even as the omniscient narrator, after disclosing what the various characters are remembering in 1991, the year of the body’s discovery, takes us back in time to show us the incident at the base of that memory. No sooner has one lead seemed promising than some new incident points in an entirely different direction. Yet throughout, even with a few twists at the end, Ford plays fair with his readers.
Covering the period from 1982 to 1991, the book is set solidly in the Reagan-Bush era. The small upper New York state town where Dan served as sheriff and where his bullying son-in-law now holds the same post has always been at one with Reagan’s values — and remains as oblivious to the toll of AIDS as the “great communicator” was. (The last thing Billy is concerned about in his drugged state is a condom.) It is a period where the electronic revolution has barely begun and where the people in places like this remain oblivious to the great historical events swirling just beyond their self-absorbed ken.
Whether Billy is innocent or guilty, he magically comes to center the family. As Charly understands about him: “It’s like he’s the only one who sees what’s really going on in the family.” The authorial voice says of him, “Unlike James, who saw life as an obstacle course to be conquered, and Celeste, who took the path of least resistance, Billy was an explorer.” Among Ford’s many achievements one may count his ability to take such a wounded character and make him the luminous guide who finds the ultimate solution to seal the case and leave behind as little pain as possible.
Drewey Wayne Gunn has edited The Golden Age of Gay Fiction (MLR Press, 2009), a collection of twenty-two essays, with illustrations, about the rich but now largely ignored period 1948-1978. It includes his essay on mysteries of the period, “Down These Queer Streets a Man Must Go.”