Firstly, congratulations to Mr. Lear for winning the 'Writer Of The Year Award' for his novel Palace Of Varieties at the 2008 Erotic Awards in London this September. Secondly, thanks for this sequel to The Back Passage and regaling us with more of 'Mitch' Mitchell's exploits. I was looking forward to The Secret Tunnel. Sadly, it's left me feeling a bit disappointed. Has James Lear been paying a little too much notice to some of his sterner critics? You know the ones. Grumbling because there's too much sex in an erotic novel. know, they do rather work hand-in-glove or is that hand in....cough....I think you get my drift. What's the point of an erotic novel if it doesn't engage and engorge the senses and other body parts?

Think 'queer John Buchan' and you'll be on the right track
Before I elaborate on this, let's get one thing clear. This is still a highly enjoyable read. It's a high-camp romp of a book with an ensemble of memorable characters, well defined settings and a superbly droll line in humour. The James Lear trademarks are firing on all cylinders in this whirlwind pastiche of Murder On The Orient Express, The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps. Think 'queer John Buchan' and you'll be on the right track (scuse the pun) as Mitch boards The Flying Scotsman and gets embroiled in a complex blackmail plot. Cue closeted film stars, hairy legged highlanders, fascist dowagers, bent coppers, gay royalty and sex mad characters of many hues and descriptions. Throw in Bertrand, a young Belgian boy, his accomplice to witnessing a murder in a train toilet and willing recipient of the affections of various male admirers, including Mitch, and shake vigorously in a silver cocktail shaker and serve on the rocks with a twist of lemon peel.

The plot giddily does its own twisting and turning and the piling up of clues and theories as to why a young man is found dead in a loo with one of his fingers missing rushes to a breathless conclusion where it seems Mitch has screwed up with his hypothesis whilst delivering his Agatha Christie like summation of the previous 200 odd pages to a cast of characters. Lear's prose is spare and powerful, providing us with the right amount of detail for each of the characters to enable us to visualise them in our mind's eye. The likes of Dickinson, Lady Antonia, Betrand and Simmonds all leap off the page via his deft sketching out of character traits and witty use of dialogue and that's a clear development that this new novel brings.

...a sort of literary coitus interuptus as a tease to potentially saucy events
My problem is that the filth has gone missing without leave. There are some charged sex scenes at the beginning of the book between Mitch and his lover Vince before he leaves on the Flying Scotsman for London and Lear spends the rest of the book promising some very steamy stuff - the seduction of Arthur, the young porter, a potential orgy with kilted, hairy soldiers in a train carriage, a Hellfire Club scene of utter debauchery but they don't quite happen the way in which I was hoping they'd appear. There's a real sense of holding back here, especially from Mitch, with a sort of literary coitus interuptus as a tease to potentially saucy events later in the book. Yes, there are very erotic scenes with some of the soldiers, and where Mitch auditions for a back street pornographer, but it's all too much chase and none of the thrill. There isn't even a sequel to the seduction of the policeman in The Back Passage despite Lear bringing the character back. Why bring him back and then not have the hero or another character give him a thorough seeing to? The sex scenes do seem to lack the usual feverish qualities and erotic detail and seem sketchier and, dare I say it, lacking in interest? Mr. Lear, what's happened? I imagine it is difficult to avoid repeating yourself as a writer of these kinds of works but my impression here is that he wanted to tell a ripping good yarn with memorable characters, which he achieves with great effect, and the sexy bits became a bit of minor detail in the proceedings. Certainly on the erotic content it doesn't match the thrills of the The Back Passage and both Hot Valley and Palace Of Varieties have better written sex scenes even if their character development isn't a patch on the way Lear writes here.

It's still a cracking read, with good period detail and thoroughly likeable heroes and it certainly does bring a whole new and hilarious meaning to the saying 'fingering the suspect'.

The Secret Tunnel - James Lear (Cleis Press, September 2008, ISBN:9781573443296)
Reviews of Palace Of Varieties and The Back Passage

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