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.