Book Reviews: Three Novels About Gay Sleuths in Exotic Lands

By Kevin Allman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Bangkok adventure is way off the beaten track for veteran detective Don Strachey, whose sleuthing is usually confined to the dour (and unexpectedly engrossing) landscape of Albany, N.Y. But in The 38 Million Dollar Smile (MLR; paperback, $14.99), Richard Stevenson's ninth novel about Strachey, he and Timmy Callahan, his less-than-enthusiastic partner, travel to Thailand in search of Gary Griswold, a former Albany steel executive who came out of the closet in middle age, divorced his wife and proceeded to take a series of young lovers. Strachey has been hired by Griswold's ex-wife, who's now married to Griswold's brother -- just one branch of a complicated family tree. Soon Strachey and Callahan are tracking the man through the nightlife and saunas of tourist-heavy Thailand. Along the way, they run afoul of farangs (Westerners) and katoeys (Thai ladyboys), as well as representatives of the genially corrupt Bangkok police force and a native Thai PI with the unlikely name of Rufus Pugh. Strachey thinks they're making good progress until Timmy disappears, and he gets a startling call from the woman who hired him back in Albany. The centerpiece of "The 38 Million Dollar Smile" is an enjoyable if preposterous hostage-rescue sequence that melds Cirque du Soleil showmanship with a stunt worthy of the old "Batman" TV series. Along the way, Stevenson spins an enjoyable if sometimes far-fetched yarn, laced with some fun surprises, colorful characters and the everlasting pleasure of seeing strangers attempting to navigate a strange land.

The strange land in Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man's Smile (Touchstone; paperback, $14) is 1880s Paris, with side trips to London and a mining town in Colorado. It's the latest installment in Gyles Brandreth's historical mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde (who at the time was famous as a personality and touring speaker, not as a playwright). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sarah Bernhardt (both of whom knew Wilde in real life) make substantial appearances, and the story is narrated by Wilde's real-life friend and biographer Robert Sherard. Upon returning from the States, Wilde is asked to help translate "Hamlet" for a landmark production being staged by the Theatre La Grange, a multi-generational family of acclaimed French actors. Patriarch Edmond La Grange's talented children, Bernard and Agn├Ęs, are taking on the roles of Hamlet and Ophelia, and the Paris theater world is abuzz. And then the murders begin. Highly theatrical ones. But the pivotal two don't take place until well past the halfway mark, and no one in the theater company seems as alarmed as they should be that corpses are piling up. The double-twist, triple-lutz solution supplied by Wilde will have its detractors, but the novel is still an entertaining and meticulously researched piece of pop fiction about Wilde and his circle.

A more muscular plot comes from an unlikely milieu -- the world of Turkish drag queens -- in Mehmet Murat Somer's The Gigolo Murder (Penguin; paperback, $14), whose transvestites and tough guys are often one and the same. (This is the second of his Turkish Delight series, translated from the Turkish by Kenneth James Dakan.) Somer's unnamed sleuth is the owner of a drag spot in Istanbul, but he also has a few other identities up his sleeve: He's a freelance computer hacker, a mean amateur Thai kickboxer and a passionate devotee of all things Audrey Hepburn. Despondent over a love affair gone bad, he's dragged from his bed and forced to shave (both his face and his legs) by his best friend, Ponpon, a formidable drag queen who's half coquette, half Jewish mother. At Ponpon's club, our hero(ine) meets Haluk and Canan Pekerdem, a socially prominent couple who have fallen into trouble: Canan's loan-shark brother has been arrested on suspicion of murdering a bus driver who turned out to have a secret life. ("This was how the murder fell straight into my lap, sucking me deep into a swirling vortex of events," sighs Somer's sleuth, in typical perfervid style.) Under all the mascara, Somer has constructed a clever, twisty plot with plenty of grit, and the Istanbul drag scene is something truly fresh in the world of exotic mysteries. The front of the book has a list of Turkish translations and a list of characters to aid the reader, but once you get going, neither is really necessary. "The Gigolo Murder" zips along with an insouciance that's truly international.

Kevin Allman is a frequent reviewer of mysteries.

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