Review

Death Vows
by Richard Stevenson
     [aka Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64)]
mlrpress
212 pages
$14.99
September 2008

Reviewed by Ellen Urbani (Guatemala 1991-93)

    LET’S START WITH the disclosure of a guilty little secret. Death Vows, the 9th in the series of Donald Strachey mysteries by Richard Stevenson (nee Richard Lipez, Ethiopia 1962–64), was a rollicking romp of a read.
         Thing is, I meant not to like it. Initially, I did something worse than judge a book by its cover: I judged it by its publisher, mlrpress, a company so obscure as to require Googling. Anticipating the titular, instead I wound up unexpectedly titillated by a home page plastered with covers of mostly naked men in the throes of . . . well, you know . . . throes. As it turns out, mlrpress stands for “ManLoveRomance Press: Gay, Erotic Fiction at its Best.” Now, I like to think I’m as open-minded as every other ultra-liberal RPCV gal, but I must confess to harboring a somewhat conventional preference for keeping the man love in my bed, and the gay erotic fiction off my nightstand. Besides, the reader in me considers Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winner American Pastoral to be a light summery break from more complicated fare, and the author in me considers Tony D’Sousa and Paul Theroux and Mark Brazaitis to be contemporaries. So I wanted to think of myself as a bit more literary, rather more refined, than to easily succumb to the temptation of ManLoveRomance fare.

         What Stevenson has proved here is that I am a snob, and he can craft a page-turning caper.
         Plot-driven, in the tradition of most whodunits, Death Vows follows the case of gay private investigator Donald Strachey of Albany, NY, who is hired by a retired gay couple to investigate the mysterious fiancé of their mutual “friend.” In the ripped-from-the-headlines style for which Stevenson is known, the partners-to-be are also both men, thereby featuring Massachusetts’ recent law allowing gay couples to marry as a secondary character in the novel. Though all the primary characters have long since come out of the closet, the skeletons they left behind reanimate with every turn of the page; everyone has a concealed past and a secret identity, and it is Strachey’s job to weave through the confusion while solving his client’s murder and preventing his own.
         Part of the fun for Peace Corps types will be the regular references to the RPCV status of Strachey’s partner, Timothy, and the ways in which his characterization is marked by his service. Take, for instance, this repartee:

         “Timothy, you have all these Kennedy stories, and I have none. I want to meet this Radziwill guy, and then I’ll have a Kennedy story too. I hope you won’t mind. JFK was your president, you Peace Corps types. I know you’re proprietary about him.”
         “But, Don, you had your president too — LBJ. And you’ve got plenty of Johnson stories. Or johnson with a small J.” He chuckled.
         This was an uncharacteristically crude remark from Timmy, and snider than I was used to. I said, “The Vietnamese word for penis is eunice. Did you know this?”

    Don’t misjudge the book by this hint of provocative joshing; it never gets raunchier than that. Instead, Stevenson’s self-deprecating humor parades notably throughout the entire work. He never shies from poking fun at himself through his characters, whether via salty references to the Peace Corps or issues of sexual orientation; this tongue-in-cheek irreverence keeps a book about murder and socio-political transitions from devolving into a bleak and cumbersome preacher’s platform. To wit, this stereotypically ‘gay’ attack scene:

         “So apparently [your clients, less-than-affectionately referred to as ‘the toads’] were in [the grocery] yesterday around two doing their shopping when they ran into Barry Fields, a local gay guy who is about as fond of them as most people are, and they got into an argument about something. Anyway, Fields ended up screaming at the toads, and he hit [one] with a wheel of cheese.”
         “Was he hurt?”
         “Not badly, according to the paper. Not hospitalized, at any rate.”
         “Perhaps it was a fine, aromatic, soft cheese.”
         “The report didn’t say. The Eagle is not what it once was, Donald. It’s owned by a cheap chain now, and you’re lucky if they don’t spell cheese with a z. The old Eagle would have described the area in western France where the cheese originated and included a sidebar about the editor’s mother’s visit there in 1958.”

     Cheeky though it is, this isn’t great literature by any stretch. At the end of this century, Stevenson’s not going to be snapping at the heels of any of the competitors for the “100 Greatest Books of the Last 100 Years” list. Though The New York Times Book Review praised his second novel in this series, On the Other Hand, Death, for its “thoroughly realized characters,” those featured here, seven books hence, seem profoundly one-dimensional right down to the ultimate culprit, the oft-maligned mob, uncovered as the banal bad-guy simply because someone, in B-movie fashion, used that most-clichéd of mafia catch-phrases: “I’ll break your legs!”
     The language is also, at times, unbearably stilted: “It was possible, I said, that there was some legitimate reason for their identities being of apparent recent manufacture.” Even worse, the verbiage sometimes ranges so far beyond stilted as to be absurd: “Now they both rolled their eyes. I was beginning to fear for the integrity of their optic nerves.” And “but I shoved these thoughts back down into their seamy cerebral storage bins.” It would also benefit from some finer editing, as there is an entire passage of dialogue about halfway through in which the victim’s and perpetrator’s names are inverted.
     Clearly, Death Vows won’t be overtaxing anyone’s cerebral storage bins. But still, flaws and all, it entertained me; something much more highbrow literature has not infrequently failed to do. Moreover, Stevenson made me laugh — sometimes with him, sometimes at him, sometimes at my own aspirations to the intelligentsia — and in the end tally, I unashamedly admit: This is one gay detective I didn’t object to cozying up with.

Ellen Urbani is the author of the memoir When I Was Elena, a Book Sense Notable Selection in ’06. It is the story of the women she befriended during her Peace Corps service in Guatemala. Her short stories have been published in various pop-culture anthologies. Her novel-in-progress is set in the Deep South in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Ellen lives in Portland, OR, with her two toddlers. Her website is www.ellenurbani.com