Rest for the Wicked by Ellen Hart
In a perfect world, everyone would be equal but this is never going to be possible in the real world. A combination of genetics and the choices we make condemn some to a less equal status. Some will be more intelligent, more persuasive, more physically powerful, more accommodating. . . There are as many different ways to distinguish between people as there are people with opinions. It’s not fair but that’s the way most societies work even though there are legal structures intended to provide a safety net for those who, through no fault of their own, deserve help. Laws can offer redress if people with ability are denied work, or financial support if an accident leaves them unable to work. But laws can be paper tigers if those with an enforcement role or the judges themselves are prejudiced. In cases of sexual orientation, protection can be hard to find. There’s a pervasive puritanism that reacts with hostility to the increasing social acceptance of homosexuality. The inherent anger that drives the opposition of the Christian community to the liberalisation of marriage to include same-sex couples is a public demonstration of this.
Rest for the Wicked by Ellen Hart (Minotaur, 2012) is the twentieth Jane Lawless novel written by a five-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery. This is a fascinating award. In a perfect society, you would expect mystery books to be judged on their quality as prose describing and then solving a puzzle. So the fact there’s a need to establish a separate prize for those writing a gay version of this fiction is an implicit admission that not all mystery books will be referred for judging or actually judged equally. In 2012, I note the eleventh failure of the board to award a Pulitzer for fiction. If there are fixed criteria for determining the quality of books, it’s perfectly proper for judges to say none of the books submitted are good enough. The fact readers may think books are outstanding is not relevant in the eyes of some judges. So perhaps the writers of gay fiction do need separate Awards to recognise their success in writing books for their market. Who’s to say whether any of the judges for all Awards are prejudiced? Perhaps the failure of explicitly gay books to secure national awards does require a counterbalance, assuming we think awards have any real importance, of course.
The series character, Jane Lawless, is the owner of two restaurants and has just secured her PI licence. She has also just broken up her relationship and, with ice and snow on the ground, finds her senior partner in the PI business in hospital. A fall has encouraged a bullet fragment in his spine to move position and he needs surgery to remove it. With one of her two restaurants also underperforming, this is not the best time to find herself with a murder mystery to solve. As the book develops, a good surgeon works on her partner’s back, a new girlfriend hoves into view, but the one restaurant remains in a distinctly dodgy state. As to the murder? Well, it turns out there are several bodies littering the landscape and our Jane is just the right person to begin putting it all together in a gift-wrapped package for the police.
It’s a refreshing change to read a contemporary book that presents gay characters as part of life’s rich tapestry. In straight books, when they are mentioned, they tend to be portrayed as creatures keeping a low profile and inhabiting a world of their own. Rest for the Wicked is a happy mix of gay and straight characters in a distinctly amicable relationship. There’s nothing particularly surprising that the local police are not interested in dealing with a PI. It has nothing to do with her sexuality. It’s the natural antipathy fictional police officers have for PIs. Her restaurants serve excellent value-for-money food. She has made a good life for herself. Not being resident in the US, I can’t say to what extent, if at all, this is an idealised version of reality. This small but socially active gay group seems to operate openly and without any fear in their lives. I don’t believe this has anything to do with the setting in Minneapolis. The implicit assumption seems to be that it’s entirely safe to be out. Yet there’s news of anti-gay hate crimes. In Britain there are circumstances in which gays might be circumspect. I’m also slightly disconcerted she’s not more proactive in dealing with the underperforming restaurant. Word-of-mouth can kill an eating place’s good name in double-quick time. Perhaps that will be addressed in the next book.
Finally, there’s one central element that I find faintly surprising. I’m aware of this happening in well-documented historical cases and I can understand why it appears in this book. Indeed, it produces one of the most tragic reasons for a murder that I can recall for many years. But as a general state of affairs persisting over a reasonably significant amount of time, I doubt it’s possible to carry off. That said, there’s a pleasing thematic consistency about the book and the motives people have for what they do. I was impressed by the quality of the puzzle and the manner of its solution, making this a mystery well worth reading no matter what your own sexual preferences.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.