It's sad, but not surprising, that Lambda Rising, the most visible of the local gay bookstores, recently closed its Baltimore branch. The Balto LR was not far from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, so b&c would routinely drop by there when he went to the symphony on Sundays, and on the occasions when he and I went to see the BSO, we'd both drop in. It seemed a lot like the other Lambda Risings, in Dupont Circle and Rehoboth. The same pressures that have driven bookstore consolidation and evaporation generally make it hard for any small bookstore to stay in business, and I reckon that a gay bookstore has the additional problem of losing something of its original raison d'etre. At some point gay bookstores were important community fixtures, but I suppose there are others now, and when the oppression facing a community lessens, as it cannot help but have done in Baltimore, the reasons for such community fixtures become less compelling. And, of course, nobody reads any more, and you can get your porn off the Internet or via Amazon. But b&c managed to make a final stop by the store before it closed, so he probably got the last books he bought there on sale. B&c is something of a frugal fellow, which may be why he doesn't mind me reading his books after he's done with them, though the more likely reason is that each of us separately has enough books to fill many bookcases, and if there is going to be more room taken up (and there is), he wants it to be taken up with his stuff.
Anyway, one of his most recent purchases was The Back Passage, which, because there are still some remnants of ghettoization, is classified on the cover as "Fiction/Gay & Lesbian." While it certainly is that, the classification is woefully inadequate, and a better description would have been "Mystery/Gay Pornography," since The Back Passage is basically a pornographic whodunit. A whofuckedit, if you will. By the way, the answer to whofuckedit is, pretty much, everyone.
I am not in a position to speak knowledgeably about the gay murder mystery genre. A bit of searching tells me that the genre exists, which makes perfect sense. Murder mysteries are perfect beach reading, and who spends more time at the beach than the gays? While I am a huge fan of gay porn (and even huger when I'm reading it -- can I get an amen?), I mostly gave up reading mysteries when I graduated high school. I have certainly read, and enjoyed, a few P.D. James novels in my adulthood, but on the whole, mysteries haven't been my cup of tea. I'm sure there are many compelling examples of the genre, but mysteries are necessarily highly plot-driven creations, and -- as much as I appreciate a well-constructed plot -- finding out what happens or who did it are not the main reasons I read a novel.
Nonetheless, I can relate that The Back Passage has a lot going for it. In addition to being pornography and a murder mystery, it's something of a comedy of manners. The extremely witty, sexy, and horny American protagonist finds himself in an English manor for the weekend. The double entendres begin with the title and never really stop.
Neither does the sex. Our man Mitch romps with men of all classes and stations from the master of the house to the servants to the local constabulary. And the sex is, for the most part, explicitly and erotically described. It's good porn: you should be able to crank out a number of loads, depending on your refractory period and how caught up in the story you get.
The Back Passage is most successful on the pornographic level. It's certainly (to my untrained eye, at least) a competent mystery, and the characters are engaging enough to make it a better comedy of manners than many examples of the form, I'm sure. But there's not a lot of depth, and it's not as funny as it might be, as if the author were relying on the likely tumescence of the reader to keep him from noticing that there's not all that much there there.
Still, it's pretty awesome to find a book that tries to do all of those things simultaneously and that manages to create a very fun read. I regularly complain about the failure of popular culture to incorporate explicitly erotic elements into its standard forms. Books like The Back Passage are evidence that the incorporation is beginning to happen. There's still a long way to go, of course. The book was published as a trade paperback. James Lear is almost certainly a pseudonym, and it looks like his other books appear to be iterations on the same formula. I certainly don't begrudge anyone who's found a way to make money by appropriating a formerly hetero genre, even when the results are dreadful, but I continue to hope that what currently exists mostly in the form of pulp fiction will percolate up into ever more sublime -- and sexy -- strata of literature.