Title: Red White Black and Blue
Author: Richard Stevenson
Cover Artist: Deana C. Jamroz
Publisher: MLR Press
Amazon Buy Link
Genre: Mystery/Political Thriller
Length: Novel (224 pages/63k words)
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
One Sentence Review: The 12th Donald Strachey Mystery is everything I expect books by this author to be: impeccably-written with smart humor and significant social commentary.
In an election year, Don finds himself in the unlikely role of political operative. Rumors about the Tea Party’s opportunistic gubernatorial candidate, Kenyon Louderbush, paint him as an unfaithful, callous exploiter of young men…young men that he puts into the hospital…or perhaps the morgue. Don smells truth in those rumors. But, he’s confounded by a shadowy conspiracy, witnesses’ fear and a grieving family appallingly willing to give up on justice for a brutalized son and brother.
In RED WHITE AND BLACK AND BLUE, series creator Stevenson takes witty aim at the polarization, dissembling and double-dealing of American politics. It’s a story that leaves even our hero, Don, tarnished and bruised.
As many of you know, the Donald Strachey books, the tales of the title character, a gay private investigator in Albany, NY, are some of my favorite reads. While Cockeyed (book 11) took a little bit of a hilarious departure from the fairly standard mystery format and offered a much lighter mystery element, Stevenson is back on track with Red White Black and Blue. As with the majority of the books in the series, this one could read this as a standalone, but I highly recommend starting with the first book, Death Trick.
The story opens with Don being hired by Tom Dunphy, the campaign manager of a Democratic hopeful in the New York governor’s race. He has heard rumor that married right-wing, Tea Party libertarian Kenyon Louderbush is both gay and beating up young men with whom he has relationships, going so far as to possibly being the reason one committed suicide, and wants to have info to expose Louderbush and force him from the election. Soon into it, Don gets physical warnings to drop the investigation, which makes him want to carry on even more. Wading through lies, half-truths, conflicted witnesses and circumstances out of his control, when he thinks he is getting to the bottom of it he realizes may be up against something much bigger than he imagined.
Stevenson’s books are impeccably-written with smart wit and great dialog, which I love. They often tackle and are interwoven with big, current cultural issues and while he superficially takes on state government with this one (mostly-invented New York, in this case), the theme of bruises/abuse/violence run amok (as the title implies) as well as hypocrisy, greed, deceit, arrogance, tolerance, cynicism and the familiar moral and ethical haziness.
A note before I go on: this story is not going to be for everyone. For maximum enjoyment, I think the reader needs to have interest in and some understanding of politics, especially American politics. Yes, there are deeper issues here such as the complexity of abusive relationships and closeted behavior, but much of the story surrounds politics and commentary about the state of current American politics, even pulling in the real-life drama around former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Included in this is the tolerance many of us have of elected officials and other people (mainly men) in authority who cheat and double-deal, make back-room deals and have ethical and moral insufficiencies.
Speaking of moral and ethical murkiness, this is something Don is known for (and relies on longtime partner and compass Timmy to call him on and calm him down). I had to laugh; Don doesn’t have issues with burning down the nightclub of goons who have done some bad shit to him, but he feels guilty over throwing a biodegradable piece of litter out of his car window. And not only does he employ a top-notch hacker to help his investigation, but he happily impersonates no less than ten people: in no particular order, he’s with BBC America and the FBI, plays rugby, is a probation officer, memorial scholarship organizer, a reporter with Le Monde and political staffer, has a violent girlfriend, and is a relative to various people. He thinks …I wasn’t sure I could come up with any more appalling bald-faced lies that day — though in a pinch, for a higher cause, I of course could have.
These books always make me chuckle at the dry wit Stevenson employs. Whether it be things Don thinks, says or observes, or in conversation with others, the humor comes through:
[Dunphy talking]“It’s your reputation for borderline-difficult, independent-minded integrity, in fact, that got you recommended for this job. That plus, of course, the fact that you are said to be gay as a Greek sailor. That’s true, am I right?”
“I’ve taken it up the butt more than once.”…I said, “I never heard that about Greek sailors.”
“Really?” He looked as if somebody had given him bad information, and what was this going to mean?
While is never at the forefront of the novels, watching Timmy and Don’s decades-long relationship grow is one of the reasons I recommend readers starting with the first book (the author stopped aging them two books ago, which until that time they were aging real-time and approaching seventy). As with previous installments, it just has a feel of longevity and comfort:
He knew when he had made his point with me and I had considered it and I was jolly well going to do as I jolly well pleased. He recited an obscure Buddhist good-luck mantra he had picked up on our trip to Thailand a few years earlier. Then he called me a few names in Sanskrit and rang off.
As usual, the secondary cast is large and colorful. Stevenson manages to given even the smallest parts personalities, so that each character gives something to the story. Standouts for me were the friend of the deceased, Janie Insinger, about whom Don says thinks:
It had been a while since I had generated a physical response to a body of the opposite sex, but there was something about Insinger’s appearance and her perfume — peony bloom? — that combined to have me shifting in my seat. Until, that is, she opened her mouth again.
and super-hacker Bud Giannopolous:
“I’m just glad all you cyberhackers are good Americans, and none of you are working for Muammar Qaddafi or the Syrians or anything.”
“No, we’re all patriots at heart. What we do is as American as Hostess Fruit Pie.”
Lastly, I found the mystery element multi-faceted and interesting, with the investigation into uncovering Louderbush as the scum that he is and trying to find out who is behind attempts to get Don to stop altogether sharing screentime.
Red White Black and Blue is a must for fans of the series and those interested in American politics.