Why Did I Start a Mystery Series With a Gay Sleuth?

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 paraphrase 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 like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school, are happily married, 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 I loved the academic setting where, as Borges put it so well, you find bald men argue over a comb.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started; I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books, and I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for the Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

Years ago, when I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine for the author. 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 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 online at writewithoutborders.com.

Don’t Freak Out When You Get a Bad Review (Updated)

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Don’t snarl at people who tell you that all publicity is good publicity.  Later in life (and your career) you’ll want some friends.

Don’t text everyone you know that the reviewer is an absolute moron who deserves nothing but Ebola. Why? Most people likely won’t know about the review until you mention it.

Don’t make snarky tweets or Facebook posts about this reviewer, because your bitterness won’t wreak revenge, it’ll end up as an unflattering hashtag about you like #authorbeyotch.

Don’t  look up all the other reviews this person has done (especially of your friends’ books) to see if yours is the worst, or otherwise push the dagger in any further.

Don’t contact the reviewer or the publication the review appeared in to complain. Nothing you say will help. Your nemesis will always get the last word.

Do get revenge by inflicting whatever bodily harm on the reviewer you want to in fiction.  If you’re not up to it, find a crime writer who is, pay whatever it costs and move on.

Do try to remember that bad reviews are the price of being an author, like losing an editor, hating your book cover, nobody showing up to your book signing, and strangers asking you if you know Stephen King.

Do spend some time re-reading your good reviews if you can’t let go of the bad one, and remind yourself that not everyone is as blind, lacking in taste, or mentally deficient as that reviewer.

Do go out and have whatever fun will distract you most, or sit down and write something terrific because you know you can. The Romans didn’t say it, but they should have: ars longa, censor brevis. Art lasts a long time. Reviewers? Not so much.

Do have someone you trust examine the review dispassionately just in case the reviewer might have possibly stumbled on something remotely helpful to you in your craft. Then have this person write it down, put it in a bottle, seal the bottle carefully and throw it into the nearest body of water.

Not So Crazy About Gone Girl?

A mystery reading friend recently asked me what I thought about Kathy Reichs’ Déja Dead.

Why bring up a book that came out sixteen years ago? Because a line from my Detroit Free Press review was in the paperback with other review quotes: “As good as Patricia Cornwell at her best.”

So my friend wanted to know what I thought, since it was being read by her book group. I told her I couldn’t remember. I reviewed hundreds of books for the Detroit Free Press back when I was their crime fiction columnist. Reviewed hundreds, and started and abandoned hundreds more searching for ones I thought my readers would enjoy.

I couldn’t recall anything specific about Reichs’ thriller, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. It just meant that better books had eclipsed it in my memory. And that might have been a question of timing. Sometimes a book that people told me was great seemed dim because the book I’d reviewed just before it was amazing. Sometimes a book might have struck me as better than it actually was because I’d read a number of turkeys in a row.

Whatever I felt, I tried not to be steamrolled by the media juggernaut, because now and then I’d be hit with massive waves of PR telling me that this book was going to rock my world. If it didn’t, I’d skip a review, unless I felt I wanted to issue a kind of consumer warning, a service to my readers: People say this book is brilliant, but don’t feel there’s something wrong with you if you don’t agree.

I found that recently with Gillian Flynn’s best-selling Gone Girl, whose movie version was just released. The whole galaxy seems to be in love with this thriller. Check out the Amazon page–you’d think nobody had ever written a thriller as amazing as this book, that Gillian Flynn, in other words, was as good as it gets. Is there a newspaper or magazine in the country that isn’t in love with her book?

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Friends whose taste I respect urged me to read it, and I tried more than once because I hadn’t read a good thriller in a while and was looking for something gripping. Each time, though, I didn’t get very far. Though I made some progress, the thought of spending any time at all in the company of a voice that obnoxious was painful to me. Overall, I found the prose uninviting.

As for the huge twist people raved about? Well, when they told me the set-up, I guessed at how the twist would unravel and I checked Wikipedia. I was right. That’s not because I was especially clever, but because other writers and screenwriters had done similar things before Flynn and it was fairly obvious.

I’m on a mystery readers’ and writers’ discussion list where almost everyone thinks this book is dazzling, and when I disagreed, I got grateful comments off-list. Why is it that when the media raves about a book and Goodreads and Amazon seem to rubber stamp that opinion, people are often embarrassed to dissent?

Well, if it helps any of you out there who weren’t wild about Gone Girl, take a closer look at its Amazon page. The last time I checked, for the 14,000+ readers there who gave it four or five stars, 7,000 gave it only one to three stars. You are not alone. Maybe it’s time to think about a support group….