It Don’t Come Easy

The future’s so bright, we have to wear shades.

I’m referring to the crime fiction world. I’ve been having a marvelous time reading debut authors lately–Mia P. Manansala, Wanda M. Morris, just to name two–and I have to say, the debut authors are simply killing it lately. I am glad I’ve not been asked to sit on any judging panels for best firsts lately, because while it would be amazing to read all of these exceptional debuts for an entire year, having to winnow them down first to five and then to pick a winner would be incredibly difficult. It’s hard enough participating in fan-voted awards, like the Leftys and the Anthonys.

That is also particularly true when it comes to queer crime. Some of the queer crime novels I’ve been reading over the last year or so have been exceptional–and Marco Carocari’s Blackout fits right in with the premise of this post: an exceptional debut novel, and with gay characters, issues and themes front and center; and written by a gay man. Blackout was a Lefty finalist for Best First Novel (a truly packed category, seriously) and I couldn’t have been prouder of Marco–especially once I finished reading the book.

Franco couldn’t deny it any longer. This had been a mistake. “I’m sorry…hold on a second,” he said, gripping the rooftop’s metal railing to keep his balance, his blue gym shorts around his ankles. All around him low hanging pinkish clouds held back SoHo’s city lights, dousing the neighborhood in a muted glow.

The half-naked man behind him grunted and stepped back. “Dude, this isn’t working for me.”

Franco detected frustration in his voice, but found it hard to care. Wiping sweat from his forehead, he scratched the blond stubble on his cheek, his naked skin damp from from the sultry air. “Sorry, I…need a moment. I don’t feel so hot,” he said over his shoulder, straightening up. He spat on the ground, but the strange metallic taste lingered in his dry mouth. He swayed and saw double. “What the hell was in that thing?”

He got no answer and glanced at his bare chested hunk of a date standing there, zipping up.

Okay, considering this had barely taken ten minutes, date was probably grossly overstated. Franco eyed the ripped, olive-skinned stud who went by Pitcher9 on the MeatUp app, but whose real name he’d already forgotten. Pressed, he’d go with Hey since that was an intimate an introduction the situation warranted. A fading, crudely drawn mermaid tattoo on the man’s left oblique, possibly a blast from his youthful past, only increased his bad boy vibe.

Well, that’s an opening, isn’t it?

When I discovered that not only was queer fiction a thing, but that queer crime fiction was a strong and vital force in the genre, I was in heaven. I devoured queer fiction, and especially queer crime fiction of any kind. I discovered the rich history of queer fiction by reading writers like Joseph Hanson, Barbara Wilson, Richard Stevenson, Michael Nava, Ellen Hart, and Katherine Forrest–and any number of others. I was a queer book reviewer for years. I was editor of Lambda Book Report and served as a Lambda judge any number of times. I kind of burned out on it, to be honest…but I kept reading it and I certainly was paying attention. There has been any number of ups and downs in queer crime over the decades, but the flourishing we’re seeing now is pretty amazing for me to witness.

First of all, Marco’s book begins with the above scene (there’s a set-up introduction chapter, that dates back to the New York blackout of 1977), and it’s from a crime fiction small press. Not a small press that is queer owned and operated, but a crime fiction small press. That’s some serious in-your-face gay sexuality going on in those opening paragraphs; a hook-up gone bad on a rooftop in Manhattan. It is both blunt and frank and right there, in your face–and I cannot even begin to express how exciting it is for me, not just as a gay author but as a gay man of a certain age, to see gay sexuality expressed so bluntly and openly from a small crime press. Just as it amazed me that PJ Vernon’s Bath Haus was published (and promoted heavily) by one of the big presses in New York, it’s also lovely to see that small crime fiction publishers are embracing this kind of content.

It’s lovely, frankly.

The book itself is a strong debut novel from someone who will undoubtedly be a force to reckon with in the years to come. Franco smokes a joint with his trick, but the joint is laced with something so Franco becomes what we call an unreliable narrator/unreliable witness. He thinks he sees a murder happen in the window across the street–but the police find nothing to corroborate or back up his story. Did he really see something? Was it the drugs? And slowly, as Franco and his friends try to figure out what is going on and what is happening to Franco, it all seems to lead back in time to that night when the lights went out in New York…

Franco is a terrific character–likable if frustrating from time to time–but how would anyone react in this kind of situation? The trope of “I think I saw a murder but I may not have” isn’t original–Agatha Christie’s brilliant What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw is one of the best of these types of stories, but Carocari giving it a gay twist–and what a gay twist it was, indeed!–made it fresh and original and new. I don’t know if Carocari plans on writing more books with Franco as his protagonist–or if what he writes next will be a crime thriller or gay at all; but whatever it is, I am looking forward to reading it when it comes out.

I am a fan. Well done, Marco, and welcome to the queer crime fiction club!

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