Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Two, the Hard Way and Murder 0ne

One could easily mistake this pair of hard-boiled mysteries by Sydney Harper for the start of a series distinguished by gimmicky numerical titles. Well think again, babe.

First, Murder One and Two the Hard Way are essentially variations on the same story, a minimalist mystery in which a handsome, rugged detective with obvious but unacknowledged sexual-identity issues catches a nasty gay-related murder in a cold, outdoorsy city -- Minneapolis and Denver, respectively – gets in touch with his inner homosexual, meets his equally manly soul mate, has sex with underage hustlers and discovers that his case hinges on the victim's fondness for very young boys. Reading them back-to-back reading multiplies the creepiness factor exponentially, for reasons to be discussed in due course.

Two, The Hard Way
Blueboy Library, 1976

Two, the Hard Way opens in the lavish but tastefully decorated Denver apartment of 38-year-old businessman Harold Deter, as he's being serviced by underage hustler Billy Marsh, already an eager and seasoned pro at the age of fifteen. Neither hears the front door open or notices the approach of a stealthy gunman who kills both with a shot to the head.

Some time later, movie-star handsome homicide detective Larry Baldwin, 32, is dragged out of bed for a briefing about the double homicide. Not that he's sorry to leave this particular bed, which belongs to the hot cocktail waitress who picked him up a couple of nights ago and probably wishes she hadn't, given that he's proved a non-starter in the sack. Maybe Larry could have risen to the occasion had her bathroom not been a filthy tarn of damp stockings and half-used cosmetics... or maybe not. In any event, the vicious murder gives him an excuse to both clear out and stop thinking about the whole business.

The cops know when the crime occurred – Deter's nosy neighbors put the time at 4:11PM – and have a suspect in Deanna Baldwin (everyone calls her DeeDee, she purrs), the victim's beautiful business partner and in-name-only wife. Four years earlier, she claims, Deter suddenly turned gay, but they stayed together because divorce is bad for business and their business – Deter Electronics – was thriving. Unfortunately, Deanna has a solid alibi for the time of the killings: She was luxuriating in the building's deluxe, well-staffed spa. And she professes ignorance of the underage hustler stuff; as far as she knew, her late husband favored men like hunky, Denver-based country-rocker Bruce Tallman.

Larry, one month away from embarking on a new career as a lawyer and already burdened with plenty of cases he'd like to close, wants no part of the Deter homicide: It was all the earmarks of a sordid, time-consuming quagmire. But the department is short staffed, so he's stuck with it: The only upside is that it's a perfect excuse to blow off Laura, and so what if the bitch calls him a "goddamned fairy?" Without any real leads, Larry decides to interview Tallman, but like DeeDee, the singer has an ironclad alibi: He was in Aspen doing a live TV appearance. Tallman also turns out to be a hell of a nice guy and a great host, assuming you can overlook the fact that he plies Larry with hashish-laced hot chocolate and then takes sexual advantage of him.

Fortunately, Larry emerges from the experience positively glowing -- even longtime colleague Sid notices when he stops by the office for an update – and bearing the names of two persons of interest: Realtor Clark Cavanaugh, who had a brief fling with Deter, and engineer Bert Johnson, who was apparently trying to sell Deter some new invention. Sid's news, by contrast, is all bad: The murder weapon was wiped clean and the rent boy had no criminal connections – he was just a spoiled rich kid who hung out with "a group of fags" at a notorious queer cruising place. Huh… Larry realizes that Sid always talked about homosexuals that way, but he's suddenly bothered by it.

Cavanaugh turns out to be a penny-ante creep, but Johnson went missing several days earlier, which is suggestive but of no immediate help. So while Sid looks into Johnson's background, Larry heads out to interview Billy Marsh's best friend, Bobby Larson. He finds the truant teen home alone, and learns that the Billy and Bobby were lovers who hustled for walking-around money: Bobby is poor and Billy's homophobic dad was a skinflint. Deter propositioned both boys the day he was killed, but Bobby begged off to go fishing with his dad. And then next thing you know, hot-eyed little Bobby has his hands down Larry's pants and isn't taking "no" for an answer... not that Larry is actually saying no to the little nympho's eager ministrations, even though he knows Bobby is only 14 and has the rounded, baby-fat body and "cute little cock" of a boy several years younger. Let's pause for a recap: Billy is seriously underage, Larry is old enough to be his father, an officer of the law and doesn't even have the excuse of being drunk or high, but he just can't help himself and eaderly agrees to come back for more. Your tax dollars at work.

Sid, meanwhile, has located Johnson, who admits that that Deter Electronics optioned his design for a revolutionary remote control but says the deal stalled so he started secretly shopping the device to other companies, which puts him out of town when Deter was killed. DeeDee, on the other hand, is looking more and more guilty: Filing a claim way in excess of the insurance coverage she led Larry to believe her husband was carrying makes her a liar, and if she'll lie about money who knows what else she's lying about. But there's still the matter of that alibi…

Larry needs a break and jumps on Bruce's invitation to spend some quality time in his weekend cabin; they run into Bobby along the way and take him along. Larry once again gets his erotic horizons expanded, starting with a three-way shower grope. And amazingly enough, he still has the energy for a brainstorm: A little highly illegal breaking-and-entering later, Larry has proof that DeeDee staged her alibi using cutting-edge electronic equipment. The case is closed and Larry leaves the force for a new life as a happily gay man with a new career, well-hung lover Tallman and, presumably, little Bobby to warm up those cold, dark Colorado nights.

Nice gay-positive ending and all, but there's no getting around the Bobby problem…
I mean, we're not talking a "high school hotties" novel in which humpy youngsters under the age of consent fool around together. Narratives dealing with mutual sexual exploration between teenagers may be aimed at horny older readers, but are by their nature less tainted by highly-charged issues of power, authority and meaningful consent than novels like Murder One and its follow up, Two the Hard Way, which blow past issues of significant age difference (20-some-odd years), economics (rich dilettante vs. poor scrambler) and social standing (cop vs. underage hustler) as though they didn't exist. And we haven't even gotten to the matter of tone, which counts in a big way.

Two,the Hard Way fairly reeks of predatory self-justification: Oh, no, it's not the 32-year-old cop or the hunky, middle-aged celebrity in charge here: It's the insatiable, hypersexual child ("child" being the noun most often associated with Bobby) who makes the first move and directs the carnal circus. Add the fact that Harper describes Bobby in a way that suggests someone even younger than 14 and there's no getting around it: Larry and Bruce are screwing a kid, which is both unsettling and puzzling, in that by 1976 most porn professionals had figured out that the business was all about niche appeal, in that most people's erotic triggers are fairly specific and what doesn't appeal often actively repels. So titles generally made clear what the consumer should expect -- if you never imagined that Fathers and Sons and Lovers or Basket-Kissing Cousin involved incest, well then, more fool you. But running smack into pedophilia in the hard-boiled Murder One, well, that could be a shock to the system.

Blueboy Library actively solicited reader feedback, encouraging them to write in "about any subject, likes and dislikes, concerning our books" and promised that "all suggestions are weighed when making editorial decisions." I'd love to know what kind of correspondence they received concerning Two, the Hard Way, because I can't help but think that some readers would have preferred their neo-noir sex fantasies without the side of child molestation. Blueboy published Harper's Murder One the following year (which means it was almost certainly in the pipeline when Two, the Hard Way came out), and as far as I can tell, that was the last of Sydney Harper.


Murder One
Blueboy Library, 1977

Set in freezing, snowy Minneapolis, Murder One begins with blond-haired, blue-eyed, 32-year-old homicide detective Bert Sonderstrom watching a gay stag movie recovered from the apartment of middle-aged murder victim Mel Aanerud. It gets Bert to idly reminiscing about his first sexual encounter, when he was 11 and his best friend, Jimmy, was 14. Not that he's gay or anything. Bert is dating a girl named Betty and has even thought about proposing, though he liked her a lot better when she was a trembling virgin... Maybe sweet talking Betty into bed wasn't such a great idea, because she took to sex like a tigress to raw meat and Bert just isn't into sexually aggressive women.

Anyway, back to the crime: Aanerud, a quiet, well-off financial consultant, was married, but his invalid wife has been in a Maryland convalescent home for years. His upscale apartment is tastefully decorated (too-chic '50s Paul McCobb moderne, if you please) and "neat as a pin," a dramatic contrast to Aanerud's messy corpse. The dead man was both shot in the head and castrated, though oddly enough, the castration occurred several hours after death. Bert's partner, Barney, cleverly pegs it as "a fag murder," but the only clue is a receipt from a gas station in semi-rural Anoka, some 35 miles north of the city and not exactly Greenwich Village's contry cousin. Bert checks it out anyway, and the chatty station owner not only recognizes Aanerud's photo but directs Bert to his isolated weekend house and volunteers that Aanerud never had visitors, but local kid David Martin looked after the place during the week.

Bert is checking the place out – making careful note of Aanerud's substantial collection of gay porn -- when who should show up but pretty little David, who quickly reveals that he and Aanerud liked photographing themselves recreating poses from a favorite porn book. The snapshots are nowhere to be found, but just thinking about them excites David, who proves well trained (Harper prefers the word "conditioned") in the art of servicing adult men and had Bert's repressed number at hello.

Bert knows fooling around with an 11-year-old is 100 different kinds of wrong, but -- like Larry Baldwin -- can't resist the aggressive child's hairless body ("covered with a layer of delightfully plump baby fat") "cute little penis" and insatiable lust for cock. David proceeds to blow Bert's, um, mind six ways to Sunday, and several hours later the dazed cop has gone from same-sex virgin to master of the gay Kama Sutra thanks to the tutelage of a precocious pre-teen (it's surely no coincidence that Bert was Bobby's age when he dallied with Jimmy, though he's apparently so stupefied that the whole business has abruptly slipped his mind). Everything is downhill from there: Someone tries to run Bert off the road as he drives back to Minneapolis and Betty is just plain nasty when he isn't in the mood for sex, accusing him of being queer before throwing him out on his ass.

The next day, Bert pursues David's casual remark that Aanerud had a friend named Jerome who ran a gym, eventually locating the Roman Palace Heath Club and its owner, Jerome Whitman. Jerome swears that Aanerud had no enemies and has an airtight alibi for the time of the murder: He was in jail on a DUI rap. He also knows all about the dirty photos and is puzzled that they weren't at the house – that's where Aanerud kept them. He suggests that Bert check up on a coke-addicted lowlife named Carter Duncan, with whom he and Aanerud briefly fooled around. The well-endowed Jerome also applies himself vigorously to furthering Bert's sexual education.

Duncan turns out to be a fat creep who frequents porn theaters, but he also has an alibi and anyway, Bert is convinced that the missing photos are the key to Aanerud's murder. He heads back to the house, where Jerome has promised to meet him later, but first makes a detour to the Martin farm on the chance that David's dad, taciturn patriarch Harvey, might know something useful about his late neighbor. He doesn't, but promises to send his son over after school. By the time little David arrives, Bert and Jerome are sick of searching for the still-missing photos and primed for some seriously orgying, though they first have to listen to the child's assertion that his father would kill him if he knew what he was up to… Not that David cares, since he and Aanerud once saw the oh-so-righteous Harvey having carnal knowledge of a sheep.

When Jerome and Bert finally tear themselves away from David's pliant young flesh and head for their cars, someone runs Jerome down and barely misses Bert, who suddenly realizes who the killer must be. He asks Barney to meet him at the Martin farm, where old man Martin, ranting wildly about sodomites, tries to kill them but accidentally shoots his wife instead. Barney kills him, and he and Bert deliver the remarkably untraumatized Bobby into an uncle's care. But Bert has an idea: What if he were to adopt David; you know, give the boy a fresh start in a loving and understanding home? The end... or the beginning?

Having tested the child-diddling waters with Two, the Hard Way's 14-but-looks-younger Bobby, Harper abandons all pretense in
Murder One: Natural-born exhibitionist David Martin is barely old enough to come and yet too avidly aggressive for grown men to resist.

Granted, this particular brand of boy lust is nothing new -- you have to turn a very blind eye indeed not to see it in the slyly sensual putti that litter the work of painters from Annibal Carracci (1560-1609) to Leon Bazille-Perrault (1832-1908) – but that doesn't make it okay and may well why Mr. "Sydney Harper" -- whom I have no reason to believe is in any way connected to the numerous singers, artists, ad marketers, athletes, police officers, crafters and students, almost all women, named Sydney Harper who crowd the web -- quietly left the stage after writing these two books.

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