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Richard Lipez, novelist who featured a gay private eye, dies at 83

Richard Lipez, who expanded the genre of detective fiction with novels featuring a gay private investigator and was also a longtime reviewer of mysteries for The Washington Post, died March 16 at his home in Becket, Mass. He was 83.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his husband, Joe Wheaton.

Mr. Lipez (pronounced lih-PEZ) wrote fiction under the pen name of Richard Stevenson — using his middle name — and published 16 novels in his Donald Strachey series, which took his gay detective down mean streets and into murky psychological corners of modern American life.

Strachey first appeared in the 1981 novel “Death Trick,” which explored dark strains in gay culture and brought a new sensibility to hard-boiled crime fiction. (Mr. Lipez’s detective was named after Lytton Strachey, an openly gay British writer of the early 20th century.)

There had been other gay protagonists in crime fiction before — most notably Joseph Hansen’s angst-ridden insurance underwriter Dave Brandstetter, who debuted in 1970. But the typical private eyes in the novels of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald or Robert B. Parker were hard-bitten men who had fraught relationships with women and booze.

Gay characters, when they appeared at all, “were either the masochistic killers or the pathetic victims or the blackmail victims,” Mr. Lipez said in a 1998 interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

Strachey was matter of fact about his identity and had a strong relationship with his partner, Timmy Callahan. The smart repartee between them had echoes of Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett’s novel “The Thin Man.”

Mr. Lipez’s books “were a crucial expression of the transformation of the American hard-boiled genre during” the 1980s, critic and literary scholar Maureen Corrigan wrote in an email, “when suddenly women, people of color, and gay and lesbian characters stepped into the role of detective, which, up until then, had been dominated by straight White guys who looked and acted like Sam Spade,” another character created by Hammett.

“Dick’s mysteries were not only politically pointed, but witty and engrossing,” Corrigan added. “I often teach them in my American Detective Fiction course at Georgetown.”

When he began to write the Strachey novels under the pen name of Richard Stevenson, Mr. Lipez had a wife and school-age children and was wrestling with his identity. Writing about a gay character, he told “Fresh Air,” “really was an important part of my coming to terms with my own sexual nature and of coming out with other people and of beginning to make changes in my life.”

His novels frequently addressed issues related to gay life, such as “conversion” therapy by a quack therapist and the killing of a gay activist who exposed closeted gay men. Strachey, a onetime police detective, was left to sort out the villains from the victims and restore a semblance of order to the lives of his clients.

Many of Mr. Lipez’s Strachey novels are set in Albany, N.Y., or in other fading locales in the Northeast. In “Strachey’s Folly” (1998), he described Log Heaven, a small city clearly modeled on his hometown of Lock Haven, Pa.:

“Three big furniture factories I passed on the edge of town were dark and boarded up. And the only sizable employer I spotted was a mobile home assembly plant. I doubled back up River Street. The Susquehanna, one of the loveliest streams in America, was no longer visible from the town that the river had apparently once made prosperous.”

Richard Stevenson Lipez was born Nov. 30, 1938, in Lock Haven. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a broadcaster who founded a radio station, where young Richard was a jazz disc jockey.

After graduating from what is now Lock Haven University, Mr. Lipez joined the Peace Corps in 1962 and spent two years in Ethiopia. He then worked as a Washington-based program evaluator, visiting Peace Corps workers around the world. In 1967, he moved to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, where he directed a social services agency.

He became a full-time writer in 1970, contributing humor articles to magazines and writing editorials for the Berkshire Eagle newspaper. He published his first novel, “Grand Scam,” written with Peter Stein, in 1979.

Beginning in 1985, he wrote almost 200 book reviews for The Post, most of them about crime fiction. His reviews usually appeared in the Style section, often covered four or five books at a time and drew effortlessly on a wide range of cultural references, from Shakespeare to the films of François Truffaut to the poetry of T.S. Eliot and a century-long parade of mystery writers.

“He was an ideal reviewer: engaged, skilled at summarizing a plot, not shy about making judgments, witty and glad to take advice from an editor,” Mr. Lipez’s former Post editor, Dennis Drabelle, said in an email. “When he liked a book, he would review it with the same kind of verve that a high-spirited guest shows in introducing a friend to the rest of a party.”

Mr. Lipez’s final review for The Post appeared on the day he died.

Mr. Lipez’s first marriage, to Hedy Harris, ended in divorce. Survivors include Joe Wheaton, an artist and onetime restaurateur who was his partner since 1990 and husband since 2004, of Becket; two children from his first marriage, Sydney Lipez of New Rochelle, N.Y., and Zachary Lipez of New York City; a brother; and a sister.

Before his death, Mr. Lipez had completed two new novels, one featuring a gay detective in 1940s Philadelphia and another that will be the 17th installment in the Strachey series. Several of the Strachey books have been adapted for film, and many of them are being republished by ReQueered Tales, a company specializing in gay and lesbian fiction.

“I don’t think any of my books are frivolous,” Mr. Lipez said on “Fresh Air.” “They’re always about serious matters — sometimes serious moral matters. And they have humor in them and I hope that they are entertaining, but there’s always a gravity that I intend.”