By Keith Orr
I discovered Agatha Christie in the sixth grade. A friend’s parents had an enormous library which included about 60 of Christie’s mysteries. The books are puzzles. All of the clues are present. Often the area of the crime is finite and closed. No external shenanigans. It is clearly not the way of the real world, but it makes for intensely enjoyable reading.
David Pederson’s debut novel, Death Comes Darkly, is a mystery in this tradition. My capsule review of the book is “Agatha Christie…if Miss Marple were a gay police detective in post-WWII Milwaukee.” In this case, Miss Marple is Heath Barrington, a confident and attractive detective on the Milwaukee police force. Miss Marple did not have a sidekick, however Heath has one in the form of police officer Alan Keyes. Alan is both sidekick and lover to Heath.
When I spoke to Pederson, he told me he loved the capsule review, though said, “Yes, I am a big Agatha Christie fan. While the homage was not necessarily deliberate, her writing certainly had an influence on me.”
Just to the south and west of Milwaukee lies Lake Geneva, a resort community. In the 1940s it was a playground for the wealthy of Chicago and Milwaukee. The lake was lined with cottages which would be described as mansions by the rest of humanity. Heath Barrington is inexplicably invited for a weekend at one such estate, the summer home of eccentric millionaire Dexter S. Darkly. It is accessible only by a steamer ferry.
Other invitees include a cast of characters, each of whom would have some motive for killing Darkly, including Darkly’s estranged family, the (unacknowledged) boyfriend of his deceased son, and, of course, the butler. Joining Heath on the second day of his stay is his lover and sidekick Alan Keyes. Before you know it, a murder occurs, the phone line is cut, and the steamer will not be coming by for another day. The murderer has to be one of the people staying at the cottage. In the absence of the local police, Detective Barrington takes charge, assisted by Officer Keyes.
Particularly fun is that this is also a historical novel. I asked Pederson about this aspect of the book and he said, “I wrote it historically, because I think I’ve always been a bit of an old soul. I grew up watching old MGM musicals and movies, wanting to emulate them, to be like those stars. Even in high school I spun Doris Day and Frank Sinatra records, and my favorite musical group was the Pied Pipers. So I guess I feel very comfortable with the time period of the 40s. Even so, I did indeed have to do a great deal of research. The internet was a huge help, but so is having a partner who’s a librarian. I wanted to be as historically accurate as possible, down to clothing, cars, prices, what was at the movies, on the radio and in the headlines. I researched what food was served, what social customs were practiced and how they spoke.”
One of the earliest writers of gay mysteries was Joseph Hansen, who wrote the groundbreaking David Brandstetter books. The first Brandstetter book was published in 1970. They were set in a contemporary time and Brandstetter was openly gay. In all other ways he epitomized the hard-boiled detective protagonist of a Dashiell Hammett story. The dashing and fearless Heath Barrington reminds me of Brandstetter. However, Barrington lives in an earlier time. Being openly gay was not an option.
Heath and Alan’s relationship is complicated by their careers and their times. I was curious about Pederson’s choice of writing a gay detective novel set in a time which would not allow his hero to be out. He said, “to me, being gay is a part of Heath. He has to keep it a secret from all but a very, very few, and that’s just the way it was. He’s not out to his parents, his co-workers, his friends or his neighbors. He realizes he has no choice in the matter if he doesn’t want to be ostracized, fired and/or arrested.”
Oddly, the most mysterious characters in the book are Heath and Alan. We see them at work and learn a little bit about them in their interplay. But there are many unanswered questions. How did they meet? Are there any other people in their lives who share their secret? Aside from clearly caring about each other, what are their lives like in a setting other than the Darkly Estate while working to solve a crime? Pederson promises there will be answers. “The story of how they met is in a book I’m still working on (shelved at the moment), but I hope to go back and finish it soon.”
David Pederson will be appearing at Common Language Bookstore on Saturday, Aug. 20. at 6. p.m. for a reading, reception and book signing. Join him and find out more about his fascinating detective. Hear a reading from the first in what we hope will be many Heath Barrington books. Copies of Death Comes Darkly will be available for sale and signing by the author.