Monday, August 20, 2007

Tales From The Discount Bin #1

Hello, all, and welcome to the inaugural post in a series that I hope to continue indefinitely, albeit at semi-irregular intervals.

Awhile back, while on the tail end of my community work service tenure, I happened across a small used book store downtown called C&M Books. When I would work downtown, on my break I would wander around, and it was on one of these breaks that I found the shop. This wasn't my first exposure to the place, that had occurred over 10 years prior. My experience was not a bad one, quite the opposite in fact, I picked up quite a few excellent finds on that trip, but I so infrequently wander through downtown that I just never found myself back there. I had actually suspected the shop of closing down, since it seemed even then to be doing a fairly slow trade. Luckily, my suspicions were wrong.

C&M Books is the type of used bookstore where there are just as many books in piles on the floor as there are in the floor to ceiling bookcases, more, even! It's tipping the scale from 'cluttered' to 'messy', but it just adds to the charm, I suppose. The completely scattered arrangement of merchandise can make it pretty daunting if you actually go into the store with a specific title in mind, but that's beside the point. The type of books your likely to find in this store are generally older paperbacks, many from the 70s and 80s(although still plenty of new stuff as well), in pretty good condition, and mostly genre titles. Title Wave, one of the other few used book stores in anchorage, takes these types of books and crams them into one corner. At C&M the opposite is held true, with one measly bookcase devoted to 'literature', while sci-fi, fantasy, romance, horror, mystery and adventure take up the rest. The average price is half whatever the cover price was when the book first went on sale, and considering most of these were published back when books only cost a buck or two, that's a pretty fine deal.

I've taken this opportunity to indulge a woefully neglected guilty pleasure of mine; the tacky, irredeemable pulp novel. On my last trip there I picked up a stack of old sci-fi and mystery books, all of them with tawdry, lurid covers of alien princesses or grisly murder victims. I evened that out with some more culturally acceptable titles like a Dashiel Hammet novel and the first Ian Fleming Bond book, Casino Royale. My plan there is to start at the beginning and pick up one a month until I've read them all. The book that concerns my post today is the arrestingly titled 'The Gloryhole Murders'. If you don't know what a Gloryhole is, well, I'm not going to ruin the surprise. Google it, but be careful not to do it at work. The cover I picked up was, unfortunately, not as lurid as it could have been. It is, in fact, quite dull and non-descriptive. But with a title like that, that practically leaped off the shelf as I scanned the titles, you don't need a flashy cover.

This is the fairly nondescript cover I got.

Here's the cover I would have liked to have seen. Certainly it fits the whole 'lurid cover' aspect of pulp novels better than the other.

The biggest question, and biggest fear, frankly, was 'how much gay sex will I have to read about in this book?' The answer is, blessedly little(not that there's anything wrong with that). The book concerns antique shop owner Matty Sinclair, who becomes the prerequisite 'reluctant detective' when he's approached by the police to help investigate the murder of a prominent businessman in the restrooms of the Ramrod. Which, believe it or not, is a gay bar. There's a couple references to Matty's past life as a DA, something he quit because he didn't want to stay in the closet, but really, the cops come to him because he's gay.

Honestly, I'm thankful there's no gay sex(not that there's anything wrong with that), but the book isn't nearly as lurid and tawdry as one would hope from a cut-rate tale of murder during deviant sexual acts. Aside from the titular murder, described in detail only in the prologue(and yes, its gruesome... horribly so), the details are pretty mundane. In fact it's rather boring. The author intends her hero to be a riotous, deadpan narrator, the type of character intended to shock and amuse, who says what people wish they could say, but he actually just comes across as an ass. He's elitist to the point of caricature, calls all women 'fish', keeps an underage runaway lover, and is casually racist(upon finding himself chased into a darkened alley, Matty is relieved to find his pursuer is not a black man, only a possible mafia hitman). This racism may not be a character trait, but something the author herself is dealing with. Every black character in this novel, with one exception, speaks in a cliched pigeon English. Prime example: "HR was the bestest man I ever seed aroun here." I'm sure these stereotypes exist, and I admit I've never been to New Orleans, where this is set, but certainly not EVERY African American speaks in this manner. Our hero is also unconvincingly gay. He insults(mentally), the appearance and demeanor of all the men around him, but will spend page upon page describing the sensuality of the various women he encounters, at one point sleeping with one of them, for no real apparent reason(he does make a point of telling her he didn't enjoy it, but he comes back again and again).

In this way, and in a few others, The Gloryhole Murders has a kind of 'Will & Grace' attitude towards homosexuality. The idea being that every woman needs a gay man to make her life more meaningful, and that is, of course, the greatest honor a gay man can aspire to. To help a woman discover the best color palate for her wardrobe, to gossip about boyfriends, to provide that shoulder to cry on, and to never, ever have any sort of sex life outside of the occasional hetero tryst. Because two guys? That's just icky. What are you, some sort of deviant? I don't think this is homophobia, the author does appear to be comfortable with gay culture, but what would the term be? It's certainly condescending and demeaning, whatever it is. An outsider's look at what, at the time, was a subculture that the mainstream was only marginally aware of.

The book does manage to keep the killer's identity a surprise, but it does this with the twin tricks of keeping certain information from the reader until the end, and having the motive for the murders be more than a little implausible. I can almost understand the murder that starts the book off, but every consecutive murder is just a bit more far-fetched. Still, it does have one McGuffin that's fairly clever. Mrs. Fennelly isn't a bad author, and this was her first published novel, so it's quite possible she's matured well. I'm not sure if I'll ever take the time to find out, though.

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