Write Fabulous Gay Mysteries? Why The Hell Not!?

I never set out to write mysteries, gay or otherwise. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has gotten an ex-lover of his a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged, and then depressed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.

The good ended happily and the bad unhappily, to quote Oscar Wilde. That was what this particular fiction meant, anyway.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, Denneny said, “Nick and Stefan could be fabulous amateur detectives.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school, are happily partnered, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because the academic setting is so ripe for satire.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started. I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books, and once my book publishing career took off, I was invited to review for the Detroit Free Press. I read lots of crime fiction and that made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too many mysteries and thrillers, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at a diner as if nothing’s happened.

Years ago, when I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine. He said his strategy was to take the series through historical changes, and see how they affected Easy Rawlins.

In the Nick Hoffman series, Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving gay couple over time, and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those social changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher, too, and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never expected.  The New York Times Book Review took notice, especially relishing the academic milieu.  That’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is State University of Murder, a story of homophobia, sexual assault, gun violence and much more.  He teaches writing workshops and mentors writers online at writewithoutborders.com.

Awesome Pandemic Cooking With My Mother in the Kitchen

My mother helps me cook now more than ever, even though she’s gone.

I’ve always liked to cook, but since the Michigan lockdown in March, I’ve been spending lots of time perusing cuisine websites and the online food sections of the New York Times and Washington Post for new ideas.  All those hours in the kitchen have made me feel as if my mother was with me while I turned pages and scrolled through website recipes.

She was a meticulous but relaxed cook and I loved watching her in the kitchen.  She broke eggs one-handed with casual grace.  Her omelets were perfect and seemed effortless.  Sugar cookies always came out just right and when she baked marble cake, she poured batter as if she were an artist finishing a canvas.  Her sausage and cream lasagna took hours to assemble and was the favorite dish of an opera singer she admired.  It sure tasted operatic: big, bold, unforgettable.

Some years after she died I found out from her surviving brother in Israel that she had actually given piano lessons in Poland before the Holocaust, a secret she kept to herself for some reason.  It made me wonder if there was music in her head when she composed her meals.

Look at this omelet

photo by holytoastr*

My father once said that because she grew up with a maid and joked that she barely knew how to boil water when they got married.  I think she learned to cook after the war from a neighbor in Brussels who was a street walker (prostitution was legal in Belgium).

Both my parents were Holocaust survivors.  They met in a displaced persons camp in Germany and had absolutely nothing except the aid and clothes they started out with that was given to them by various relief organizations in Germany and then Belgium.

They lived in a rundown part of Brussels but above a bakery and woke every morning to the heady aromas of fresh baked bread.  One story my mother told me was that every day an elegant, well-dressed beautifully made-up woman left from a nearby apartment.  My mother asked her what she did.  “Je fais les boulevards.”  I walk the streets.  That wasn’t an idiom she was familiar with and when she asked other survivors she had come to know they were horrified and afraid some pimp was trying to recruit her.

She also told me that this woman sometimes baby sat for my older brother who was born in Brussels.  That’s what makes me think the same woman helped my mother learn how to cook, since my parents must have liked her and trusted her.

My mother gave me many gifts.  A love of languages, since she spoke half a dozen; a joy of reading; a fascination with art, music, history and current events.  The gift of savoring every moment of preparing food is something she probably didn’t realize she was passing on.  But whenever I dice, whisk, sauté, or bake–she’s there.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books from memoir to mystery.

 

*”Look at this omelet” by holytoastr is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Commencement Speeches Are Not Free Speech Issues

Senator Tom Cotton–who recently argued on Twitter for giving protestors “no quarter”–is unhappy with Wichita State University Tech.  That school decided to uninvite Ivanka Trump from giving a commencement address.

His outrage is basically the same blather we hear every year about this time.  Predictably, he argued for the importance of hearing “different views,” and the canceled speaker herself brought up “viewpoint discrimination” and free speech on Twitter.

But that completely misunderstands the Bill of Rights. Someone like former Vice President Dick Cheney, for instance, is free to speak about his beliefs, his past, his hopes and dreams, his view of foreign affairs, whatever he likes anywhere he wants to. And he has. He’s a public figure and can appear on TV talk shows, can publish Op-Ed pieces, blogs, essays and books.  So can anyone in the current administration, and Ms. Trump posted her address on YouTube.

But the First Amendment isn’t about guest speakers who are typically paid handsomely for their time. It specifically refers to government intervention in individual expression. That’s just not the case where a speaker proves controversial and campus protests arise.

Just as foolish as invoking “free speech”: the noxious moralizing about how students should be open to a free expression of ideas.  After four years of college, you don’t want a lecture in the middle of a grueling, dull, long ceremony in the heat–or in the middle of a pandemic–and you shouldn’t get one.  Some schools have even had two speakers from opposite political sides of a question to “promote open discussion.” What a joke.

Commencement speeches aren’t seminars or workshops with Q&A. They’re supposed to be inspiring and entertaining. Funny, if possible. They’re throwaway, forgettable, a moment’s ornament as Edith Wharton put it in another context. And that’s okay, because graduation is about transitions, about moving on, about celebration. The ceremony isn’t an intellectual milestone for anyone involved. It’s not meant to go down in history, and the speaker sure isn’t Moses coming down from the mountain top.

Academic freedom doesn’t suffer and nobody’s rights are interfered with if a celebrity gets invited to speak to a graduating class of students, and is suddenly uninvited. Free exchange of ideas? Please. The only real exchange is the speech the speaker gives and the check that speaker leaves with or gets in the mail–plus free publicity.

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in many genres.