Thursday, September 21, 2023

Review: Lavender House by Lev A. C. Rosen

 A 1950s murder mystery that queers all your expectations.

One of the big things about period detective fiction is they all do a great job of crafting a vibe, an atmosphere. Someone calls a woman "doll", and suddenly my mental images of the book shift to black and white, everyone's sitting depressed (or possibly just repressed) at a bar in a fedora or a red dress with a thigh slit and there's smoke in the air and clouds in the sky. It just all comes with the territory.

What's so fascinating about Lavender House is how neatly it overturns some of these expectations, with the tiniest of twists, while still occupying and playing with the same tropes and ideas.

Specifically, we meet our protagonist drinking to forget in a bar, and a beautiful woman sits herself down next to him and asks him to do a job... but she's gay. He's gay. And suddenly the narrative shifts entirely. We've overturned the core relationship dynamic of the noir detective, so where do we go from here? It's a seemingly small thing, yet one that not only changes the content of the story - which is unsurprising - but also the entire feeling of the setting, of the type of book. It takes all of my issues with a certain sort of historical detective story and makes me re-examine them entirely, and I find that, when that landscape of attraction is changed, so too is the feel of the whole world.

And on this bedrock of delightful uncertainty sits Lavender House. In some ways, it's a standard murder mystery - rich family, house out in the countryside, a whodunnit, secrets behind closed doors, some upstairs/downstairs drama, learning about the detective's life as he learns about the lives of the victim and suspects, clues slowly seeping out until the answer becomes clear, a red herring or two. All the good stuff. If we just examine it as a murder mystery, we find a very competently built plot, with some compelling characters you find yourself doubting - but not wanting to doubt - and a substantial setting that leaves plenty of scope for the petty grievances and betrayals and heartbreaks that are the necessary backdrop to any investigation. Which isn't to play it down - as a murder mystery it is very well done - just not really outside the scope of the normal. I could pick up any number of books about dead rich people in the UK, the US or anywhere else, and find something that does just a good job of puzzle and clue and reveal as this does.

What I'd be much less likely to find is one that does all the peripherals quite so well as this. And it's in the peripherals that I found most of my joy in reading Lavender House.

Firstly, of course, it's a book about queerness in 1950s San Francisco. And that's already interesting - it's managing the balance really well of the terrible state of culture and law for queer people at the time with acknowledging that they were nonetheless there, and there was culture and life and joy to be found amid the awfulness. And in that dual reality - of hardship and of joy - is the divide between our protagonist and those he encounters.

Which is the second thing - Rosen does a frankly amazing job when it comes to characterisation. Every single person we see in any significant detail, and particularly Andy, our detective, and the residents of Lavender House itself, feels rounded, full and human. Some of this is par for the course for a good mystery, because you need to understand the people who might have done the murder to try to piece together the clues (hopefully just before the detective solves it on the page, so you can feel smug). But Rosen takes it that step further, and where some stories might have a house full of the haughty rich, where motives are understood intellectually, but emotionally speaking it's just a puzzle, he manages to make them all genuinely sympathetic, at least for a time. At several points in the story, I cared about who had done the murder less for the challenge of solving it and more because I was really invested in these characters I cared about not having done it please and thank you. And this I find rare, and wonderful, especially in the murder mystery genre.

Because here's the thing - and this is far bigger than can be grappled with in a single review about a single book - murder stories need to be humanised. There's a lot of terrible, grisly, cold and emotionless discussion of murders, rendering them only puzzles to be solved and obsessed over, whether in or out of fiction. And then in some cases, we push it so far in that murder becomes "cosy" - a soft, comforting genre of story where death is just a necessary premise, and the human cost is hidden in the setup, likely off page. It's not even really important except as a motive force for the plot. But if we want a story that feels real, that feels human, then that human cost needs to weigh on the page too. We need to feel like the dead were people, whose ties reach out into those who remain in the story, and critically that the murderers are people too. That complexity is the antithesis of the Scooby-Doo style mask-off reveal, where the moment the truth is known the culprit drops their own façade of humanity to become a cackling, amoral villain, but the crux of why these stories are so interesting. They're all people, doing people things for people reasons. And they feel more people when we understand them, not just logically but emotionally, especially when we don't agree with them. A senseless murder is no good story at all.

And this, Rosen has grasped fully. When we are at that point in the story where we still don't know who it might be, it is incredibly easy to care about so many of the characters, so easy to see where their insecurities, uncertainties and grudges come from. We feel like anyone could have done it, and if they did, we'd see why they were pushed to that point.

Of course, our detective gets exactly the same treatment, but from a very different angle. We meet him at a low point in his life - as we open the very first page, he is contemplating suicide because of what has happened to his career in the police - and watch him build himself back up through the course of solving the murder. We watch him begin to care about the suspects, just as we do. We also see that he, like them, is far from perfect, and has done many things we may judge, may not condone, but nonetheless understand.

And herein lies the third thing Rosen has done so well - and again is found so rarely. He genuinely interrogates the structures within which we find our characters (and their general archetypes). For Andy, our detective, this means getting to grips with the moral weight of being a gay man, in an anti-gay world, in a world where the law gleefully and regularly commits violence against queer characters. He has his reasons - of course he does - but those are never used as a carte blanche for the choices he's made or the ramifications they may have had. He has to face up to the fact that he was complicit in the system that has hurt and killed people like him. He has to face up to the fact that there may be no forgiveness from some quarters for that. And he has to face up to the fact that he might still be there, might never have pulled himself out of that complicity, but for circumstances conspiring. There are no simple answers to his moral situation. And nor are there for our - however beloved - suspects. Because they too are complicit in their own injustices. This is a small, sheltered house whose safety is bought by financial security. They have made freedom - each in their own way - to be themselves, but their is always a cost. Whether in bribes to the police for absence of scrutiny, or lip service to societal norms, or in aggressively playing the part of heteronormativity outside the confines of their sanctuary, no matter the cost, there is always a price to be paid, and there is a mark on each of them for their privilege. We see them for themselves, but we also see them, see the house, through discussions with the servants, who have their own place in the system, their own view of the injustices in the world around them, and whose voices are given the weight they deserve.

Almost everyone in the story is queer. But no one is given a free pass for it. Everyone is scrutinised for the harms they commit by their place in the world, even as we acknowledge their oppressions, and the sympathy we feel for their positions never excuses their privilege. The rich country house isn't merely a setting for the story, but the whole architecture through which to examine the world and the characters. And in this, Rosen has done what makes Lavender House truly stand out from the crowd. Because for all this examination of privilege, this acknowledgment of intersectionality, and this genuine weight to the moral questions of the book, somehow the story never falters in pace, in readability, and in due consideration of the mystery at hand. It is both a genuinely critical, thoughtful story while being a fully engaging murder mystery.

If I had any criticism - though it isn't much - I might say that the reader feels a little too in the dark about who might be the murderer for a little too long. The clues are not always paced quite so well as we'd like. But the ultimate reveal is handled well and smoothly, with sufficient drama, and the ending is satisfying, so with all the rest the story is doing, it feels very easy to forgive.

I have seen this book often likened to Knives Out, and I think the comparison falters when it comes to humour, which is my primary thought about Knives Out. There is a common thread in their examinations of wealth and privilege, but the difference in tone is a stark one. Don't go into this wanting either constant humorous undertones or the savageness that underlies the film's examination of wealth. See instead - as is present in Knives Out, though less prominently - a great deal of human sympathy, human feeling, and a murder mystery dedicated to a critical examination of what that genre truly entails. I can't wait for the next one.


The Math

Highlights: Moments of genuine complexity and interest, a compelling cast of characters, a nuanced view of the queer world of 1950s San Francisco

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Lev A C Rosen, Lavender House, [Forge, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea