THE HARDEST THING: A Dan Stagg Mystery - James Lear / Book Review

James Lear, the nom de plume of writer Rupert Smith, returns with another helping of his signature gay erotica this month with The Hardest Thing, published by Turnaround.  Smith, a Green Carnation Prize nominee for the superb Man's World and winner of Stonewall Writer of the Year in 2010, gained a reputation as a purveyor of erotica through Lear's adventures of Bostonian detective Mitch Mitchell in a series of Agatha Christie pastiches The Back Passage, The Secret Tunnel and A Sticky End.

Prior to this Lear had already explored historical romance and adventure with The Low Road, a somewhat filthier version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped; a full blown, if you'll pardon the pun, homage to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind in The Hot Valley; and with the Wildean 19th Century theatrical capers of Palace of Varieties.

Subverting period was Lear's thing it seemed and these books were all the more delicious because his erotic reworking of genre was fueled by his abiding love for such authors as Stevenson, Dumas, Dickens, Christie and Galsworthy. These books successfully used period adventure and mystery as a form of transgression, a knowingly camp suggestion of an entirely different world existing behind the boy's own adventures of David Balfour or the stiff-upper lips of the English aristocracy when they discover a body in their libraries. That world was filled with Lear's trademark, highly descriptive use of the sex scene.

The Hardest Thing is something of a surprise in that it is entirely contemporary and by its own admission is an erotic reworking of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels and, by extension, those other male fantasy figures of Ludlum's Bourne, Fleming's Bond or even John MacDonald's pulp mystery fiction featuring Travis Magee. The book succeeds in making the male fantasy figure Dan Stagg - the surname in itself full of tough, hyper-masculine and violent connotations - an object of desire for readers, male or female, gay or not and reconfigures the thriller genre as an exploration of gay identity, what constitutes masculinity and how both construct the male hero's desire for his own sex.

As Lear noted recently on a guest blog post his idea of masculinity is contrary to the hairless, six-packed anodyne figures that clutter up some gay male notions of the ideal. 'What I actually find sexy is masculinity in all its forms – and that, to me, is synonymous with naturalness. The more groomed and tweaked you become, the less masculine you are. Dan Stagg, the hero of my new novel The Hardest Thing, is an ex-marine fighting machine, so obviously he is physically fit – but I made him bald on top and hairy everywhere else, just to buck the trend.' Oddly, this doesn't quite carry over to the cover where Turnaround have dictated Stagg conform to a vested, muscled mountain of a man with a full head of hair.

What is interesting is that Lear engages directly with an abiding cliché of the gay erotic genre, wherein masculinity is equated with sexual conquest and violence, with dominance and aggression. Lear's Dan Stagg is a rather gruff man whom we're introduced to at the beginning of the book as a nightclub bouncer only capable of managing troublesome punters with violent outbursts which eventually get him sacked. Stagg is not a particularly sympathetic character and Lear shows a conflicted man beneath the tough facade. He's portrayed as a victim of the infamous 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy of gays serving in the military, an 18-year rule that forbade gay and bisexual personnel from disclosing their orientation and prevented an openly gay or bisexual person from enlisting. You stayed closeted and lied about who you were if you were serving or faced being discharged. Yet, superior officers could 'out' servicemen and women if they had credible evidence and 13,000 troops were discharged under the policy.

Lear describes ex-marine Dan Stagg serving under the policy and provides an intriguing back story about the character serving in Afghanistan and falling in love with another serviceman. It's an element of the story which provides an emotional connection to the character, one trying to negotiate his way in the wider world after years of training to prepare him for dealing with 'the enemy'. We see his past indiscretions in the service affecting his ability to lead a decent life back on 'civvie street' and the challenges to his own masculinity. Out of work, he accepts a 'mission' to protect a young hustler, 'Stirling McMahon' who is purportedly the 'secretary' to corrupt crime lord Julian Marshall.

The book's real enjoyment comes from the growing relationship between Stagg and McMahon. Their flight across the state from New York into New Hampshire, via Lincoln, allows Lear to reconfigure the pair as fugitive Bonnie and Clyde-style misfits. Stagg himself even imagines their journey as a widescreen, epic road movie. Stirling is everything Dan is not and is initially an affected, primped, plucked, moisturised, zero fat 'son' to Dan's bullish 'daddy'. If that's your fantasy then the book certainly indulges it in the relationship between the two men. There's a hint, once the relationship becomes sexually passionate, Dan intends to transform the nellyish Stirling into more of 'real man'.

But there is tenderness too and Lear uses the Stirling McMahan character to deepen the mystery about why Marshall wanted the young man out of the way. His identity is an act, Stirling is apparently Jody Miller, and Dan manages to find out who he is and the true fate that has befallen him while they hide out in a mountainside cabin after a hit-man attempts to kill Jody. The daddy-son relationship blossoms but there's also a disturbing edge to it. Stopping off at a restroom, the two men are subjected to homophobic bullying and the threat of rape but, through their own violence and sexual intimidation, Dan and Jody turn the tables on their aggressors and transform the scene into a form of sexual and violent 'revenge'. If you like your fantasies full of moral ambiguity, dominance and submission then the restroom scene is for you.

The story shifts back to New York and with Dan in search of Jody, someone he has grown to love but to whom he is reluctant to commit after his doubts about the man's identity and Marshall's continuing manipulation of him. Fueled by his guilt about Will, the deceased soldier he fell in love with in Afghanistan, Dan sets out to expose Marshall. Again, Lear uses the return to New York to develop the contemporary background of the story, grounding it as a thoroughly contemporary thriller. By meeting lawyer Martin Kingston, Lear also makes Dan unpack the 'daddy' figure convention in his relationship with Jody. As Lear explains in his guest blog post: '... if you stop obsessing about rigid criteria and types, you can have a lot of good loving with a lot of different people'. Lear is also content to explore the other side of this edict, previously realised in the restroom scene, is this is reinforced for the reader as Lear reaches the denouement's dark exploration of pleasure and pain, combining drug fueled sexual coercion with visceral, violent intimidation as Dan's lawyer friends and the police close in on Marshall and his henchman Ferrari, a thoroughly unpleasant closeted gay character.

The Hardest Thing also promises more than this single outing with its cover blurb 'A Dan Stagg Mystery' and suggests Lear is hoping to establish a series as he did briefly with the Mitch Mitchell books. The other interesting aspect to the book is Lear's use of signature sex scenes. His highly-charged, detailed couplings are present and correct, often stimulating, but with the contemporary setting there's a bruising edge to some of them, their taint of violence perhaps demanding something of double-take from the reader. Without the licence of period transgression, where extreme sexual couplings were decidedly rooted in a fantasy and could be interpreted as pleasingly frivolous or camp, Lear's erotica now prompts more questions about manliness, morality, violence and desire. For what is essentially a good summer read, The Hardest Thing will have you pondering this and more as ex-marine Dan Stagg, whose grittier methods could be considered unacceptable by some, sets out to prove his worth.

There's plenty of wit and humour and Lear's prose is concise, descriptive and, in using Dan Stagg as first person narrator, insightful of the man's rather complex relationship with himself. He is motivated by his own anger at the death of Will, his treatment by the services as well as trying to understand what makes a man a man. Lear doesn't quite resolve these questions and the relationship between Dan and Jody is clearly only just beginning, requiring both characters to understand the nature of trust and love to cope with the aftermath of Marshall and Ferrari's brutality. Both still have their demons to conquer and I hope Lear gets the opportunity to further redeem these men because they are complex, intriguing characters who deserve the chance to untangle another hard-hitting mystery.

The Hardest Thing
A Dan Stagg Mystery
James Lear
Published by Turnaround Books 8 August 2013
Paperback ISBN: 9781873262825 
268 pages

Book Launch
James Lear will launch The Hardest Thing at Gay's The Word on Thursday 5th September at 7pm.
Gay's The Word
66 Marchmont Street, London, WC1N 1AB

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