By Michael Nava
The stories in Cupid Shot Me fall somewhere between the classic Richard Rodgers tune “My Funny Valentine” and the gangland Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. You’ll find bushels of red roses but some may be lethal, and watch what you eat at that romantic dinner because that exquisite morsel on your fork may be poisoned. You’ll definitely want the bomb squad to inspect that enormous box of chocolates before you open it.
In my opinion, mystery short stories are harder to write than mystery novels. I’ve only written one and that was enough for me to realize it’s not in my wheelhouse. The mystery short story has to include all of the elements of the mystery novel—a compelling mystery, an engaging protagonist, fully fleshed-out and quirky secondary characters, snappy dialogue, evocative settings—and do it all in no more than twenty or thirty pages max. I think it’s the literary equivalent of what they said about Ginger Rogers’s dancing in those 1930s musicals she did with Fred Astaire: “Sure, he was great, but she had to do everything he did… backwards and in high heels.”
Given those challenges, the stories in this collection are seriously impressive. Not to mention diverse. You’ll find classical tropes like the locked-room mystery (“Glen & Tyler Skip Dessert,” “Speed Murder”), the police procedural (“Roses are Dead”), the caper (“Responsible Adults”) the paranormal mystery (“Let’s Fall in Love”), and the psychological thriller (“Paris”) along with new takes on classic noir (“Cabbage Key,” “Bound to Love,” “Paper Hearts,” “I’ve Been Inside Your House,” “This Thing of Darkness”). You will also discover some really, really good writing. If I quoted every line that stopped me in my tracks with admiration (and maybe a little envy), this introduction would be as long as the book itself. Here are three teasers chosen more or less at random:
“The boy’s glasses had slid halfway down his nose. In what was either a fit of irony or social suicide, the boy had chosen to wear a pocket protector.” (“Responsible Adults”)
“Compassion was the one thing you wouldn’t find for sale on the rain-soaked streets of L.A.” (“Paper Hearts”)
“He wore three things: the black leather bikini briefs, a pair of combat boots, and a plain leather harness to the back of which were attached two small wings—jet black and crafted from feathers.” (“I’ve Been Inside Your House”)
As that last passage shows, many of the stories in this collection embrace the erotic. Most mysteries shy away from anything too sexually suggestive because, who knows, maybe publishers assume mystery readers are pearl-clutching prudes. Certainly, any suggestion of gay sexuality has straight reviewers heading for the exits. I remember years ago the straight, male mystery reviewer for the Los Angeles Times in an otherwise positive review of one of my books felt compelled to issue a trigger warning because my protagonist and his boyfriend kissed. I don’t think it’s much better now. Most people in the crime fiction literary establishment (publishers, book sellers, reviewers, mystery organizations) are still straight, white, and older and still prone to regarding gay male sexuality as icky. What I admire about these writers and these stories is that they don’t pander to straight sensibilities but present gay male sexuality in all its complexity and without apology.
The stories in this collection are uniformly excellent—we can credit the editors Frank W. Butterfield and Meg Perry for their good taste—but, of course, readers will find some stories resonate more than others for whatever reason. Perhaps because I cut my teeth as a reader and writer on Raymond Chandler (yes, I know how problematic he is, but he basically invented American noir) and the vastly underrated Joseph Hansen, I like my crime fiction dark, my protagonists troubled, and my endings ambivalent. So, I was particularly engaged by two stories in this collection, Neil Plakcy’s “Cabbage Key,” and Marko Realmonte’s “Paris.” “Cabbage Key” may be the sexiest of the stories but also the most melancholy. Set in Florida in 1969, it involves the romance between two deeply closeted men who become unwilling witnesses to a murder. “Paris” starts out like “Death in Venice,” before switching tone to “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and then transforming into something entirely different and unexpected—it’s a wild ride.
By remarking on those two stories, I intend no slight to the other fine writers in this collection. You’ll have your favorites, too, but none of these of stories will disappoint you. So, fasten your seatbelts, babies, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.