A review of Lesbians on the Loose: Crime Writers on the Lam, ed. Lori L. Lake & Jessie Chandler

READ MAY, 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY: These tales of murder, mayhem, and suspense by some of today’s finest crime writers will keep you up way past your bedtime!

The lesbians on the loose in this collection are an entertaining mix of protagonists: cops, amateur sleuths, a PI, a judge, a bounty hunter, and one very insightful dog. There’s even an intrepid high schooler and a mystery writer.

Despite greed and grief, rage and revenge, secrets and lies, many of the stories feature humor from a variety of characters trying to find their way in a difficult world—cops who’ve seen too much, revenge seekers, and women who want justice for themselves and others.

You won’t regret going on the lam with these terrific writers!

Stories by: Elizabeth Sims, Carsen Taite, SY Thompson, Andi Marquette, Linda M. Vogt, VK Powell, Kate McLachlan, Lori L. Lake, Lynn Ames, Sandra de Helen, Jen Wright, Sue Hardesty, Jessie Chandler, J.M. Redmann, and Katherine V. Forrest

MY REVIEW:  Not surprisingly, given some of the authors included and, as editor, Lori L. Lake’s imprimatur, so to speak, there’s some really good stuff here. Originally, I was going to comment on each story, but that got a little unwieldy — okay, a lot unwieldy — so I’ll limit it to the ones I most enjoyed.

Elizabeth Sims’ story has the wise-cracking humor you’d expect if you’ve read any of her excellent Lillian Byrd novels. Not everything is fun and games of course. In an introspective moment, our narrator admits, “I’d pretended not to want to be liked so expertly for so long that most people took me literally and simply didn’t like me.” The ending is a tad cynical, too, but “Untold Riches” is still an enjoyable read.

“Colt .45” is different from Carsen Taite’s novels featuring attorneys, usually criminal defense attorneys. This brief glimpse of Luca Bennett definitely makes me want to check out the novels in which she’s the main character. Crisp hard-boiled writing and an intriguing protag. Only complaint: not much drama or suspense; a more memorable confrontation between Luca and the bail-jumper would’ve been nice.

I’m a great admirer of Andi Marquette’s work, and you can add “The Falcone Maltese” to the list, now, too. Fun, cute story. While the story lines of Marquette’s works are always entertaining and compelling, her characters are the best part of her stories and this little short is no exception, showing – no surprise here, folks – that she can write credible, engaging YA characters every bit as well as she does adults. Wouldn’t mind encountering these two again somewhere down the road, with Jo joining Nattie in her future sleuthing as their relationship develops.

Another very fine story – I’m beginning to realize the debt we owe our editors for bringing us this collection — Linda M Vogt’s “Roar,” is based on an actual event. The skillful writing moves things along efficiently and captures not only the women’s terror, but also the resolve of the narrator to get them out of their dire circumstances alive. It’s also a cautionary tale well worth reading. I’m sure I’ll sample more from Vogt at some point.

VK Powell’s very brief “Just Desserts” hit home; it’s hard to think of anything I find more abhorrent than child abuse. What’s clever about the story, of course, is the open ending. Most mysteries are resolved by story’s end, but not this one. Was Langley’s death accidental, or was the chocolatier français aware of the man’s deathly allergy to nuts, perhaps having overheard Cutter’s conversation with the bailiff? Will Syl reveal her suspicions to the detectives investigating Langley’s death? Will the ME find the death accidental? A lot of substance in such a small package. Nicely done.

Lynn Ames “It’s a Dog’s Life” is based on the sort of literary conceit that would be a major fail in the hands of many writers but Ames executes it quite nicely. Even if the putative “crime” being committed — Is someone stealing Mama’s stuff? — is a little off-the-wall, as are the perps, it’s a sweet story and, in a world that seems worse everydamntime you turn on the news, a little sweet can’t hurt.

Jen Wright’s “Lost” is a bit more complex than most of the stories here. While on the surface it’s a well-crafted adventure tale with plenty of suspense, the narrator also has moments of quiet reflection about the nature of friendship, as well as a articular friendship. Wright does a good job blending these two story elements. As a great admirer of the outdoors and a sometime paddler, the setting added considerably to my enjoyment, too.

To say I love JM Redmann’s Micky Knight series is in no way exaggeration. In fact, the almost visceral emotional impact of Death by the Riverside is what attracted me to fiction with lesbian characters – god, I hate the term lesfic! – in the first place. “The Curious Case of the Disappearing Dildoes,” and another short story featuring the same character, prove Redmann is equally at home with more light-hearted fare. To quote Faith from Buffy, The Vampire Slayer – was it really seventeen years ago? – this one’s “a hoot and a half.” Despite the tone, though, it’s still a well thought-out and cleverly solved mystery; the surrounding zaniness is simply lagniappe.

As different as the parable of the purloined plastic pleasurers is from Redmann’s novels, Katherine V. Forrest’s “Jessie” is classic Kate Delafield. And that means it’s very good indeed. Forrest’s ground-breaking Delafield novels still rank at the very top rung of police procedurals with lesbian protagonists (and of crime novels in general, but that’s a subject for another time) and I don’t think it’s at all a disparagement to Claire McNab, Gerri Hill, Baxter Clare or Radclyffe to suggest that KVF’s series is, arguably, still the best. This new addition, “Jessie,” is every bit as good as the novels. As a pioneer in this genre, Forrest deserves to be included in any collection such as this.

Again, these were my personal favorites in the anthology and exclusion doesn’t mean the other stories are bad. If I left out one of your favorites, mea culpa, and should we ever meet up, the Starbucks is on me.

Kudos to Lake and Chandler for bringing us such a fine batch of stories. Definitely worth your time.

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A review of The Scorpion, by Gerri Hill

ONLINE SUMMARY: Poking a sleeping bear with a sharp stick is foolish. Marty Edwards is about to be very foolish.

Investigative reporter Marty Edwards has found her niche: cold cases. She loves pouring over old notes, hunting down long-forgotten witnesses, and digging down through the layers of an unsolved murder case. But this time, Marty is digging where someone obviously doesn’t want her. And that someone might also include the Brownsville Police Department. Why else would they assign Detective Kristen Bailey to baby-sit her?

Barely surviving two attempts on her life, Marty abandons Brownsville and the case. Danger follows her as the case turns red hot. With Detective Bailey along for protection, they race along the Gulf Coast, neither knowing who, if anyone, they can trust. The hardest part is learning to trust each other before it’s too late for their hearts–and their lives.

MY REVIEW:

There are so many good things about Gerri Hill’s novels, including The Scorpion, it’s hard to know where to begin. The writing, from a purely mechanical standpoint, is absolutely sound, and the narrative flows smoothly, the narrative style well-suited to the tale itself. The pacing is just right, the more violent scenes alternating with quieter, sometimes introspective passages in which we learn more about the two main characters and in which they learn more about each other. Despite those relatively calmer passages, there is more than enough suspense to make this a definite page-turner. The plot is interesting, well-executed and logically consistent.

For me, though, the best thing about The Scorpion and the other of Hill’s novels I’ve read is the two main characters. As usual, the two principals are strong women, but not without certain vulnerabilities. (No Mary Sue characters for Hill.) While those traits could apply to any number of the author’s characters, Kristen Bailey is no Tori Hunter, no CJ Johnston, no Andrea Sullivan, nor is Marty Edwards a retread of any of Hill’s other characters. What they are is likeable, well-drawn, realistic (within the context of the story), unselfish, resolute women. Still, they have issues – Kristen’s unwillingness to talk about her father and brother and to address her mother’s death, and Marty’s sexual dysfunction – which help round out their characters and make them easier to relate to. Also, as in Hill’s other works, the characters don’t remain static; they – especially Marty, of course – aren’t the same at the conclusion as when the tale began.

One reviewer claimed she’d like the story better if the two women just remained friends. Sure, that would work, but it would be a vastly different book. And, it wouldn’t be Gerri Hill, not that she couldn’t write such a story, she simply chooses not to, and the genre is the better for it, IMNSHO. I admit I’m not into romance novels per se but I don’t object when romance is an added element in mystery, urban fantasy, or science fiction as long as the relationship doesn’t seem forced. Here, it’s a natural outgrowth of the women’s interaction and the circumstances into which they’ve been thrown. The unhurried pace at which things develop is what makes it work, I think; no “instant lesbianism.”

The sex – yes, boys and girls, there’s sex, though not a lot – is explicit without being graphic; if that seems like a contradiction, I mean that you can say “clit” without it being all porn-y. The sex scenes are erotic, but hardly gratuitous. Instead, they’re revelatory; as Katherine V. Forrest wrote many years ago, sex scenes can reveal – pun intended — things about a character that can’t be shown any other way. Like the emotional relationship between Kristen and Marty, the physical one develops gradually and the latter couldn’t have happened had the former not preceded it.

Another reviewer complained about the vigilante aspect of the plot, calling Kristen “Rambo.” While I think a Charles Bronson type character is closer to the mark, I understand the point, but I think Hill sets things up so that it’s the only solution that works. To the complaint “who knew that police officers were trained in espionage and counter-terrorism,” aside from the use of a couple electronic surveillance devices, with which the duo admit they’re not experts, there’s little else of a James Bond nature here: Kristen is, after all, an experienced detective with known undercover experience. As to the counter-terrorism cavil, the novel was written in 2009, well after the 911 attacks and at least some training in that area would be expected in a major metropolitan police force. (Remember, Bailey hasn’t always been a cop in Brownsville; she started her career in Houston.)

If I have one small quibble, it’s with the denouement. It’s the only part of the book where Hill (briefly) tells rather than shows. Though the “riding off into the sunset” ending works, it seems just sort of tagged on, as if Hill weren’t quite sure exactlyhow to bring things to a close. That said, The Scorpion is a fast-paced, very well-written, exciting entry in the suspense/romance genre. Admirers of CL Hart’s From a Distance or Baldwin and Alexiou’s Elite Operatives series should love it. It’s deserving of its Goldie Award and of your time as a reader.