Book Cover James Lear’s The Back Passage is the gay adult version of the movie Gosford Park, or at least that’s what kept coming to my mind as I read it. I wish Ryan Phillippe, Jeremy Northam, and James Wilby would star in a film adaptation of this novel!

The Back Passage follows Edward “Mitch” Mitchell, a 1924 Cambridge postgraduate student who agrees to visit Drekeham Hall, a Norfolk country estate, with his best friend, Harry “Boy” Morgan, who is engaged to the daughter of Sir James Eagle, the patriarch of the Drekeham household. Mitch’s motivation in accompanying Boy is far from innocent, however, since he’s been lusting after his friend since he first saw Boy carrying an upturned rowboat out of a river. Since proper young women don’t put out before marriage — and Mitch certainly does — it’s not long before Mitch find himself in a cupboard giving Boy his first blow job.

Before can finish the liaison, however, Boy’s fiancée screams, revealing that a dead body has just fallen out of a cupboard similar to the one Mitch and Boy are currently using. Having read a lot of detective fiction in his youth, Mitch intuits that something fishing is going on when one of the servants with no apparent connection to the dead man is quickly precipitously arrested for the murder. He therefore decides that it’s up to him to find the real murderer and bring him to justice.

But he murder plot is really just an excuse to follow Mitch’s erotic adventures, as he seduces just about every man connected with or investigating the murder, including Sir James’s younger, effeminate, and obviously gay brother, a local constable, a reporter, a couple of the servants, Sir James’s secretary, and, of course, Boy. His investigation even gives him the opportunity to observe a couple of the servants indulge their own same-sex desires and threatens his own life when he becomes the object of a corrupt policeman’s potentially homicidal S/M fantasies. The Back Passage is a fun, entertaining take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.

On his myspace page, Lear lists Richard Amory as one of his heroes and writes that he admires Amory’s classic novel, Song of the Loon. I’ve taught an excerpt from Song of the Loon in my Lesbian and Gay lit class a couple of times — it’s a great book, a masterpiece of gay historical erotic fiction. Amory uses extremely flowery language to depict homosexual romance as entirely natural and manly — part of that novel’s goal is to naturalize gay relationships. Lear follows in Amory’s footsteps by similarly depicting same-sex sexual activities as par for the course — his characters are happy to accommodate other men’s desires regardless of either party’s sexual identity. As one character explains, sex is just sex.

Lear doesn’t deploy the same degree of literariness as Amory does — he’s generally less descriptive and doesn’t seem particularly interested in character development or historical detail. But this doesn’t hurt his novel’s ability to entertain its reader. His protagonist is likable and well drawn, and the reader can’t help but wish him well in his continual pursuit of sex, truth, and the American way (Mitch is a Bostonian).

You’ve also got to respect Lear’s diction. Here’s a short passage from the novel:

After a while, the gardener reached down and drew his friend up to his level. At first I thought the second man was wearing an undershirt, a jersey of some sort — but then, on more careful examination, I realized that he was just very, very hairy. Now, I’m on the hairy side, and even at twenty I had more hair on my chest and stomach than any of my contemporaries in college. But this fellow made me look positively glabrous.

Glabrous?! While this passage comes relatively late in the novel (page 109), reading this word is where I definitely knew that I loved this book. It’s not just fun and sexy — it’s smart too.

I only have two complaints about The Back Passage. First, I wish that it had been even smarter. I like that Mitch, who narrates the novel, is constantly aware of the conventions of detective fiction, but I wish that the novel had given us a little more of the socio-cultural detail that makes Agatha Christie’s books so delightful. A little more substance between the sex scenes wouldn’t have gotten in the way; rather, it would have made the novel even more entertaining, I think.

Second, while I really like the novel’s epilogue, which lets us know what happens to the surviving characters, The Back Passage has the worst last sentence I can remember ever reading in a novel. I really like what the last paragraph is telling us — it’s exactly what I wanted to know — but the last sentence is so anti-climactic that I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Another blog that reviews gay historical fiction, Speak Its Name, suggests that Lear consider a sequel. I definitely agree with this suggestion — I would love to read about Mitch’s further adventures. I think the ending would have been more satisfying if the last sentence had indicated such a possibility. Lear’s style throughout the novel is one of comic knowingness; I think the last sentence could have incorporated this style more effectively.

Despite my two complaints, I really enjoyed this book. Maybe I’ll start reading more gay historical fiction as a result. Lear has three other novels. I might see if I can pick those up somewhere. If they’re as fun as The Back Passage, I know I’ll enjoyed reading them.

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