Queens of the (pre-)Stone(wall) Age
Blanche “Blackie” Cohen, butch vixen and golden-throated star of the nightly drag review at Greenwich Village club The Candy Box, cannot believe the callousness shown by her boss, mob associate and all-around bad-guy Stevie the Frenchman, at the young queen just found dead in the Men’s room by Tyrone, the club’s black laborer. While Stevie would love to pin the murder on Tyrone—no one is going to try to prove the innocence of a black kid—he cannot take the risk of having his business shut down. With a mayoral race, led in the polls by a tough-on-crime district attorney, thanks in no part to the headlines screaming about homosexual deviants and the need for a McCarthyesque crackdown of homosexual activity of the type proudly but clandestinely displayed at his club, Stevie can ill afford the heat that such a discovery might bring to his business and his higher-ups. Furthermore, things being as they are, no amount of hush money to New York’s easily corrupted Finest is going to make this problem disappear, since the likely mayor-elect is the chief of police, who would love to make an example out of this convenient situation to push his campaign over the top. While Blackie wants to call the police, Stevie has other plans: arrangements are made to hide the corpse on the next ship leaving for a foreign port. Any further talk of the stiff, now hidden in the freezer, Stevie warns, and there will be two bodies taking a trip across the pond.
Knowledge of her inability to discuss the dead boy, for fear of having an eternal roommate, and thoughts of her ex-girlfriend Renee, an alcoholic floozy who recently flew the coop to work as a prostitute at Madame Lucille’s brothel, have Blackie feeling down. For some reason though, against her better judgment, Blackie just can’t seem to get the image of that pretty young boy out of her head and informs her good friend and co-worker, legendary drag performer Titanic, of her intentions to get to the bottom of the mystery. At least, she reasons, the boy’s family ought to know. Titanic, in all his drag wisdom, suggests she meet a rich girl, settle down, and forget about The Candy Box, her dreams of stardom, and most of all, the boy. Seizing the moment, he introduces Blackie to young socialite Didi Fletcher-Payne—daughter of multimillionaire newspaper magnate, degenerate gambler, and prostitute patron John Jay Fletcher-Payne, and herself quite a hot dish—who bears an uncanny resemblance to the boy.
Unbeknownst to Blackie, Didi, and the reader, we are all about to embark into the dark underbelly of 1950’s New York, a place where the “straight” and “proper” big-wigs have more to hide and infinitely much more to be ashamed of—are more closeted—than the marginalized gay community under fire in the press and on the streets, where the word faggot is a common epithet and police gay-bashing is sanctioned and encouraged.
Splitting her energy, Blackie concentrates on winning the love of Didi and gumshoeing about New York to solve a murder mystery. Her detective work drops her deep into the sub-altern world while her infatuation finds her cracking the socialite barrier. As Blackie soon finds out however, divergent paths often interlace. What once seemed like a static barrier is now seen to have gaping holes that easily allow exchange between two worlds.
Further, as readers, we find that within such meetings, the secrets of straight society are often far more dangerous that the passions of anything considered queer. Family secrets abound, and Faustian bargains, even those that might prevent a murdered boy receiving justice, are often the only means of saving face. Successfully dancing around, avoiding Stevie’s suspicion, Renee’s jealousy, and outing Didi prove to be too much to keep quiet about as the inevitable suspense builds and ugly secrets are revealed.
Under the Mink is an exciting, brilliant piece of noir set in an intersection of several elements of the New York of a different age, that one we lust for when we watch mob movies and read crime novels. The intermingling of gay nightlife, organized crime, crooked cops, socialites, and political scandal is fleshed-out coherently to create a story where lives that are worlds apart collide in supernova flashes catalyzed by issues of race, gender, homophobia, class, and power. Following the genre’s standard roadmap of twists and turns, author Lisa E. Davis successfully avoids cliché vehicles while yanking readers around curves to create a sense of swirling vertigo. Davis has added a new sub-genre, (proudly) gay, to a classic form, noir, weaving fine writing with an underlying sense of celebration for the fringe. With major unpredictable swerves and a scandalous ending, this book belongs on the reading list of any fan of detective, mystery, or suspense novels.