Who’s That Blurb?
A FEMME FATALE WITH A POINT TO PROVE
It’s the summer of 1985 in London’s Soho, and Joe Stone is settling into his new life living in the heart of London’s developing gay scene.
When Danny Devraux – the compère they’ve hired to host their charity ball, The Frock Show – is found dead backstage, it falls to Joe and his friend and flatmate, Russell, to figure out what happened.
All they have to go on is a broken stiletto found near the scene, and the briefest glimpse of a mystery woman fleeing the club. But who was she? And why did she kill the most loved man in cabaret?
Past secrets, bent coppers, drag queens and old lovers all play their part in this noir murder mystery, set in the 1980s.
Helloooooooooooo and welcome to my little beardy blog once again, or if this is your first time, the warmest of beardy welcomes to the hairiest book blog you’ll read today, maybe even this week. If you read a hairier book blog then you’ll get your money back. That’s a guarantee! Not that you are actually required to spend any money here. This is a free blog for your information and entertainment, and you just can’t put a price on that. Ok, you can put a price on that – just ask Disney, et al – but you know what I mean.
Oh, and you won’t get your money back if you try this book that I will eventually, I promise, get around to reviewing and decide that you don’t like it (pffft, as if that’s going to happen). That’s not what I meant either. That’s your tough tootles if that happens. Oh look, let’s forget I ever mentioned a money back guarantee. I clearly didn’t think that through at all.
As of writing it is June 2019. The middle month. The sixth month. A month of 30 days. Named after Juno, goddess of marriage, wife of Jupiter and mother of Mars, it is the month that contains Father’s Day and my own father’s birthday, as it happens. It also has the longest day, the summer solstice.
But did you know it is also Pride Month. Well you do now. This was the month that the Stonewall Riots of 1969 took place and as such June was chosen to host a series of LGBT+ events and celebrations across the world to raise awareness and promote acceptance and equality. So it is rather fitting that this book, the second in a series of LGBTQ cozy crime novellas, should be published during Pride Month. It is almost as if it was planned that way. I’ve no idea if this was planned, but let’s not that get in the way of a great confluence.
Who’s That Girl is the second book in the Soho Noir series that began with Tainted Love (my review of which you can read here) and will eventually form a series of 6 novellas. They will make a very sexy little collection on your bookcase, and in the ever present argument for physical books over eBooks, these make a very compelling case for the former. Look at them, ain’t they gawwwwwwg?
Anyway, you didn’t come here to gawp at a lot of book spines now, did you? No, of course you didn’t. You came here to read my review of this book, no? Oh, you didn’t? (there’s always one 🙄). Well, please stay anyway as I’m sure you’ll like what you see and may even buy the book. You will? Oh thank you. Now, as I’m sur… pardon? Do I have any red velvet cake? Um, no, sorry. I might have a biscuit in the cupboard? Hold on… *rummages emoji* Erm, custard cream any good? Oh, sorry then. Right, as I was saying, now as I’m sure y… sorry? Do I have any lapsang souchong? Hold on, this isn’t some lah-de-dah café you know? You thought it was? Hmmm, The Beardy Book Blog Review Café does have a certain ring to it, I agree. But no, not today. This is a review of Who’s That Girl; straight up, no milk or sugar and certainly no cakes or other dietary accoutrements.
Ok, now we have that out of the way, let us begin.
Who’s That Girl (WTG) is the second book in the hashtag Soho Noir series, and follows on several weeks after the events of Tainted Love. However, WTG is utterly readable as a standalone novella. All you need to know about how the main characters came together is nicely and relatively spoilerlessly explained early in the book. To be honest, even though you needn’t have read Tainted Love to enjoy WTG, at only 125 pages you could nip off and read TL quite comfortably and still have time to read this one in time for tea and a lovely relaxing, foaming bath. Or an invigorating shower. Or maybe just a good old fashioned sponge bath whilst sitting in the kitchen sink? I don’t know, however you like to clean yourselves off after a hard day’s work, or tense reading, you can read both of these books and still have time to do that thing.
Just like Tainted Love before it, WTG is a novella, clocking in at around 116 pages or so. But in those pages T.S. Hunter, or Toby to furnish him with his full given name (now we know what the ‘T’ is, we still don’t know what the ‘S’ stands for. Maybe it’s ‘Stealthy’ or ‘Silent’? Possibly we’ll find that out in time for book 3), doesn’t hang about. With the main characters already established we get down to the meat and two veg of the story in no time. This is one of the great things of the novella, there is no wasted time on the little details. That’s not to say that this is a book by numbers, not at all. Toby continues to flesh out those characters already established whilst giving the new ones credible and poignant back stories.
So, once again we are reunited with Joe Stone, best friend of the victim of the first book (not a spoiler, it’s in the blurb for TL), Chris Sexton, who now lives in Chris’s old room in the house of ex-policeman, Russell Dixon (not of Dock Green as far as I know). Joe and Russell were somewhat thrust together – no, not like that – after the death of Chris and together they resolved to discover the truth behind their friend’s murder. The reason they took it upon themselves to do this is two fold: one, he was their friend and Russell’s old policeman instincts just won’t go away, and two, the Detective assigned to investigating Chris’s death, Detective Skinner, is a corrupt, homophobic and crooked cop who was instrumental in getting Russell kicked out of the Force. In Who’s That Girl, their relationship is explored further, and after the events of TL, Skinner is rather miffed and is not ready to take things lying down. This is something that will rumble on as the series progresses, you can feel it. As I’ve already mentioned above, Who’s That Girl can be read as a stand-alone book, but there are some recurring story arcs that will hopefully be resolved in future books.
We are also reintroduced to Paul, aka Patty Cakes, a fledgling drag queen and another friend of the late Chris Sexton. His and Joe’s relationship started off on rocky ground, but they appear to be on a much better footing now. Poor Patty was on stage when the body that kicks off our intrepid duo’s next investigation is discovered.
In case you didn’t know, or haven’t read the blurb above, these books are set in the 1980s; 1985 to be exact. This was a time when AIDS had a hold over the gay community and the public imagination. Newspapers were rife with stories, nearly all scaremongering and full of hate and prejudice, and the gay community, as flourishing in some parts as it was, was under attack from a new front. There was little help for those suffering from HIV/AIDS (after all, according to the self-righteous enlightened masses, they brought it upon themselves, right?) and centres such as The Campbell Centre in our story, relied on fundraisers and the goodwill of the community to survive and help those in need. It is at one of these fundraisers, the inaugural Frock Show in the Red Lion pub in London’s Soho (our Queen Victoria/Rover’s Return, if you will), where compère Danny Devraux meets his maker. Danny was a well liked and well respected staple of the drag circuit in London. Although a married straight man himself, he was clearly one of those rare men at the time (and sadly, even today), who knew that not every gay man wanted to ‘bum’ him and neither was it contagious. At first his death seems relatively straight forward, if baffling as to why, but as with TL before it, Monsieur ‘Unter reveals that there is more than meets the eye to our unfortunate victim. Sorry, I went a bit French there for a second. It must’ve been all that talk of cafés earlier.
As I have already aforementioned aforely, this is a novella of an almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 116 pages. I find that with books of this length it’s really hard to review them without spoiling every detail. Before you know it one has gone and retold the entire thing and that just won’t do. It simply isn’t cricket to ruin the fun for others. Therefore I shall move on to other aspects of this book, leaving you all to find out the juicy deets for yourselves.
So, what else is there to entice you into dipping your tootsies into the warm, cozy crime waters of this series?
Well for one, being a novella there are no real sub-plots to speak of (the aforementioned Skinner vs Dixon feud aside), and the pace is high and fast throughout. Toby doesn’t dilly dally on unnecessary details, but neither does he gloss over those that are important to the story. All-in-all it is character that drives these books along. There are many within its scant page count, and they are all believable and likeable, on the whole, with extra details revealed when required and shifting your opinions on how you may feel about them.
Although these books are set in the 80’s they don’t wallow in nostalgia or obscure pop culture references (you can have a shufty here for an insight as to why this era was chosen, and you really should check out this wonderful guest post from Mr. Hunter himself on the most excellent Lost In The Land Of Books blog hosted by the equally most excellent Sarah 😁), and as such they remain totally accessible to anyone not born in that era, who had their head in the sand throughout it, or have just chosen to forget the whole thing out of embarrassment. But for those of us who do recall it, and of the excesses and terrible fashions within that decadent decade, these books have a much firmer root in reality. You don’t have to be gay to understand the troubled times that gay people, or anyone else who just didn’t fit in to perceived societal norms of the time, had; you just need to be a compassionate and caring human being. As I think I said in my Tainted Love review, books like these, or Derek Farrell’s Danny Bird series or Paul Burston’s The Closer I Get, just would not have been published in the 1980s. Even if they were they would have only have been available in specialist shops and certainly not freely available as they happily are today. Their openly gay characters would have been consigned to sidekick status or overtly feminised for comedic effect. But they are no less important in informing people of how things have changed in the intervening 30 or so years, and how easily we can, and seem to be in some areas, slip back into those dark times and attitudes. HIV may no longer be the deadly and horrific disease that it was, at least not in developed countries and amongst those fortunate to have access to treatment, but it is still with us and the lackadaisical attitudes to safe sex that appears to be the prevalent amongst the younger generations means that it may well rise again. It is easy to forget that it is a virus, and they are highly tenacious and mutatable organisms. You should never rest on your laurels where viruses are concerned.
The Soho Noir series is not a tub-thumping agenda series of books though. Yes it beats its drum with passion and an informed eye from Toby, but at their heart they are, as of the two books released so far, a cracking pair of noir, cozy crime thrillers that for now form 1/3 of what I know will be an essential series of books.
I’m still not happy with this whole ‘cozy crime’ thing, you know? I refer you back to my Tainted Love review for my full rant on this issue. I still maintain that there’s bugger all cozy about being beaten to death or stabbed with a stiletto, in my beardy opinion. Yes, I know that that cozy here doesn’t mean ‘cosy’ (also, what’s with that errant ‘z’ in there, eh? That’s all wrong, too), but I just can’t help but think of that when I read it.
I do have one big complaint though; they are maybe a bit too short? Yes, yes, I know I was praising the novella form back up at the top of this review, and they are fantastic and complete stories, but they do leave me wanting more at the end. Of course, as I have said, there are still 4 more books to go, but I would love them to be just a little bit longer per book. I want to spend more time with Joe and Russell, Patty and Luc, Red Lion landlord Ron, even Detective Skinner, and nefarious, but strangely reasonable, gangster Tony ‘The Lizard’ Lagorio (who isn’t in this book, but you just know he’s lurking in the wings). Hey, I’m just being greedy here, so ignore me 😉
Who’s That Girl is a superb follow-up to series opener Tainted Love. It expands nicely upon the characters already introduced, but also stands alone on its own two, er, pages. It continues to explore and focus on the problems of being gay in the mid-eighties whilst also highlighting the positive aspects that the era was bringing to gay rights, too. It’s also refreshing to read a crime story where the internet was still a thing of the future and mobile phones were non-existent, forcing our heroes to do things the old fashioned way; speaking to actual people face-to-face and making mistakes along the way. To be honest, both Joe and Russell are a forensic officer’s nightmare; removing evidence, trampling all over crime scenes and leaving their dabs (see, I know all the lingo, me), all over the shop. But seeing as the police couldn’t give a shit about the death of a gay man, or anyone perceived to be, or in allegiance with, the gay scene, it hardly matters at all. I’m thrilled that there are still 4 more books to go and I await book 3, Careless Whisper, with great eagerness.
Please don’t forget to check out the rest of the blog tour over the next 7 days. There are some cracking bloggers here. Enjoy.