Tour’s Books Blog

May 10, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Back Passage by James Lear

Filed under: Amateur Sleuth,Book review,gay — toursbooks @ 8:20 pm
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The Back Passage has multiple meanings, beyond the obvious, in this gay send-up/homage to the British Manor house mystery genre; the obvious reference to m/m sex, the servant’s stairs in manors, and in this case, hidden passages.  James Lear writes a funny, fascinating, mystery with a sexually graphic gay twist to it.  I am no fan of m/m books, so this was new territory for me and I wasn’t at all sure I’d like it, especially since it dared to trifle with a favorite genre of mine – British manor house mysteries.  This book was published back in 2006, but I’d never even been aware of it till last year when my foray into erotic romance and lifelong affinity for the British cozy caused Amazon to pop this title in their never ending list ‘might also enjoy’ books.  The reviews were so good I decided I’d give it a try.

The book is written in the first person by Edward ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, an American doing post-graduate studies for a year at Cambridge in 1925.  Mitch is a lively, observant, exuberant, sexually promiscuous, supremely horny narrator the way a 23 year old can be.  In his case, he’s also a totally gay one.  It is the tone that Mitch strikes that makes the story work for me.  I’m not entirely sure how Lear pulled it off, but for all the very explicit m/m sex, I wasn’t offended and the story held my interest.

The cast includes:

Hosts for the weekend: Sir James, an MP, and his wife, Lady Caroline, their daughter Belinda, son and heir Rex

Guests:  Leonard Eagle, the dissolute, unsavory brother of Sir James; Harry ’Boy’ Morgan- Belinda’s fiancée;  Edward ‘Mitch’ Mitchell – Boy’s university chum, narrator and would be sleuth;  Reginald Walworth – guest of Sir James and victim

Late arrivals: Diane Hunt, Rex’s would be fiancée;

Staff: Meeks – an innocent footman accused and arrested for the murder; Burroughs, a butler and voyeur; Hibbert, the handsome chauffeur; Mrs. Rampage, the truly formidable housekeeper

As the story opens, Mitch and the object of Mitch’s lust, rower Harry “Boy” Morgan, have hidden themselves in a small cupboard under the stairs as part of a house party game called ‘sardines.’  Not a bad place to be with the object of your desires.  Even better, he too is feeling frisky and somewhat uninhibited thanks to the combination of heat and alcohol.  Alas, the moment of first consummation is lost when screams are heard.  Belinda, Boy’s fiancée, found a body.

Amazingly, the constabulary is on the spot immediately – and Mitch takes note of a handsome lad in uniform.  Mitch might be lusting for Boy, but he has quite the roving eye – not to mention other body parts.  Another weekend guest, Reginald Walworth is dead in Sir James’ study.  Even Mitch, amateur that he is, wonders at the number of policemen who showed up from all directions at once – within minutes of Belinda’s scream.  He even likens it to the way things happen in a farce on stage.

Now Mitch has always wanted to try his hand at solving a mystery and here’s his chance.  He’s read G. K. Chesterton, Wilkie Collins, even that new writer, Agatha Christie and he thinks he’d be a good sleuth.  Just as he’s in place to eavesdrop on Sir James and the police, Leonard sees them and draws Mitch away for a tryst of their own, promptly ignoring him afterwards.  Mitch is completely at a loss for Leonard’s behavior.  It isn’t until much later that he realizes it was just a way to keep him from learning anything about what’s going on.

When Meeks is thrown to the wolves as an all too pat solution to the murder and Rex makes a very hasty exit of the estate, Mitch becomes determined to see what’s really happening.  The answer is, a lot, from corrupt police, to blackmail, to all manner of hanky panky.  And to think all this happened before Viagra.  The butler is a voyeur with a thing for watching young men (the scene where Mitch questions Burroughs with Boy’s enthusiastic help is unique, funny and not one you’ll find in any Hercule Poirot mystery); the housekeeper will keep the family from scandal at any cost; the chauffeur provides other services – for a fee; a personal secretary that knows more than he can say; hidden passages with spy holes; and then there’s the hidden room.

So between seducing Boy – who is actually quite willing to be seduced – digging into areas of his hosts’ lives best left untouched, getting to know that handsome policeman and a few others while he’s at it, including a tabloid writer who trades information for clothing, Mitch keeps up quite an exhausting pace in both sexual antics and the investigation.  Some of his best information comes from the tabloid reporter.  Mitch loses their game, but gets what he wants anyway.  Yes, THAT too.

The Back Passage is another of those hard to define books that functions at several levels at once.  Its lasciviously good natured narrator keeps things surprisingly entertaining and intelligently written, even though the sex is frequent, raunchy and frankly hard core with a cheekiness that makes it all palatable.  For all its excesses, you could actually feel the characters and their many kinks.  It is the strength of the characters and the fact there’s a real story that keeps this book from becoming nothing but gay porn.  Mr. Lear wrote with a real feel for the period and the class divides and a wry and rather, ah, unique perspective on the sex lives of the time through peepholes and blackmail.  I’d say Lear’s historical slips were far fewer than many historical romance novels when comes to period language, dress, social mores, etc.  There is even a rather unexpected happily ever after of sorts, just not the one Mitch expected.  Finally, the ‘mystery’ part has a surprising solution and hero.  Certainly an unusual book and profoundly not for everyone, but a remarkable read.

My Grade: B- (3.7*)

Who would enjoy this book:  Those unoffended by frequent, explicit, raunchy m/m sex with an interesting mystery in a period piece.  My rating is xxx.

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