Drag Queen in the Court of Death by Caro Soles
While cleaning out his dead ex-lover Ronnie’s apartment, staid history professor Michael Dunn-Barten makes a grisly discovery ~ a mummified corpse in a trunk. Suddenly Michael must travel back 25 years to find answers by revisiting everybody who knew Ronnie. Back to the 1960s, back to the realization of his sexuality and the boy he loved. Back to the troubling time when his wife threw him out and his family disowned him. Back to uncover disturbing answers amidst drag queens and murky memories ~ and to reveal whether or not his first real love was truly a twisted killer. Drag Queen in the Court of Death is a taut thriller about a man who needs to face his past in order to forge a future. He must unravel a mystery that’s a quarter century old ~ no matter how painful the truth may be.
[LOATHE this cover. I actually bought the old version of the book just for the better cover.]
This is a great mystery that has elements of passion, romance, heartache, regret, betrayal, new love, friendship, and resolution. The large cast is essential to the story where every detail is actually a stepping stone towards much needed answers. Initially the title seemed off putting but after reading the story, it’s actually incredibly fitting. An absorbing and fascinating mystery that holds you captive through the various twists and turns with a wonderful history of gay culture woven into the story. This is really one of the best mystery books I’ve read in quite some time. I think this may be one of the only mystery stories to lack any noticeable holes and leave not a single detail hanging. A rather impressive feat on top of a wonderful story.
The story starts with Michael Dunn-Barten discovering a corpse in a sealed trunk of the house of his dead ex-lover. The existence of this corpse throws everything Michael knew about Ronnie into doubt and he’s questioning if he really knew the man at all. Considering Ronnie was Michael’s first love, and homosexual love at that, Michael struggles with understanding the man who literally changed his life. Michael’s love affair with the then seventeen Ronnie led him to leave his wife, job, family, friends, and life at the age of twenty two to embark on a passionate relationship with the love of his life. After only a few months, Ronnie broke the relationship off, leaving both men wounded and hurt without answers. Twenty five years later, Michael embarks on a discovery to find answers about the mysterious corpse and numerous secrets hidden in Ronnie’s past.
The story is told in person from Michael’s perspective, which causes a few writing errors but very few. These may be more noticeable for those that have difficulty with first person narratives, but for the most part shouldn’t cause problems for readers. Instead the gripping mystery and complexity of the relationships and the narrating character of Michael capture your attention and hold it throughout the story. The pace of the novel is very even with no noticeable increase of drama or tension. There is certainly enough drama and tension woven into the story but without the peaks and falls traditionally associated with murder mysteries.
The intricacy of the murder plot is really stunning. Each of the details, of which there are innumerable, are important and blend to give a texture not only to the characters and the book but are essential to the mystery itself. From the story line with Julie and Ryan giving rise to a later conversation between Michael and Bianca to the benefit party where Michael and Lew discuss Nigel, each seemingly superfluous detail and scene is actually a clever foundation for the final answer. The actions and choices of the characters have layers of meaning; even their mistakes are sometimes acknowledged mistakes but made for reasons important to the characters. There are surprisingly no extraneous characters in a cast of dozens, where every person plays a part ~ large or small ~ leading to the resolution of the mystery.
The main character of Michael is a strong voice and fascinating in his own right. He struggles with understanding the actions and resolution to a love affair that literally changed his life, regardless of the short time they were together. His need for answers is more than a need to solve the mystery, but it’s a need to come to terms with the truth of his life and the person he loved so passionately that never really left his mind or heart. This specter unwittingly stayed with Michael until he could understand and put to rest his own confusion and questions. His choices, even his mistakes, are not always easy and sometimes naive and frustrating but always with a purpose and conscientious choice.
The setting is very essential to the story and interestingly, takes place in 1989. This dates the book and atmosphere immediately but works especially well considering the plot focuses on memories and actions that took place in the late 1960s and from there to the present time. The setting of 1989 questions when this book was written but seamlessly slides into the journey of exploration into a man’s past over 25 years. This highlights the changes of attitude and especially so during the 1960s in Canada where homosexuality was not accepted in any form. Considering the majority of the remembered action revolves around a few months in the spring of 1965, this time period is vividly reflected in the details with all its tawdry glory. Additionally the city of Toronto is vibrantly described with a surprising level of detail, giving the book a reality that draws readers in immediately.
I have no complaints about this mystery but it may not appeal to all readers for a few reasons. First the pacing of the mystery was wonderful in my opinion but it won’t appeal to all mystery lovers. The details slowly merge, creating different parts to the puzzle until the very end, when the reader steps back to fully appreciate the finished product. There is no appreciable tension buildup, no heart racing action scene, no blurted details, no missed clues, and especially no “ah-ha” moments where the answer becomes clear. This is a subtle and intricate dance to the end where every scene and subplot adds a careful and essential layer to the mystery. The gradual and simultaneous building and unfolding of details creates a different tone and mood from a more conventional murder mystery. So this may not be for all tastes.
The successful accomplishment of this complicated and wonderful mystery however was enough for me and likely others to greatly appreciate the story. I can’t wait to read this book again and when I finished, I was almost disappointed. I wanted to be able to open the book with fresh eyes and no knowledge, just to experience the journey Michael takes as he searches for answers. This story is a fabulous piece of mystery fiction and literature lovers will be delighted by this tale.
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