Accomplished mystery author Marshall Thornton (the Boystown series) takes readers on a trip back to early 90s Los Angeles in his recent release, Late Fees: a Pinx Video whodunnit. Against a backdrop of nascent antiretroviral HIV treatment, VHS rentals, beepers, phone books, and West Hollywood muscle queens, it’s a well-crafted murder mystery that makes for a fun, nostalgic ride.
The series’ sleuth is Noah Valentine, a regular gay in his early thirties, recently diagnosed with HIV, who owns the sort of no-frills, independent video rental store that was a staple of urban Main Streets across the country before the digital age. Noah’s investigative prowess comes from a combination of TV detective fandom, a coterie of friends who love a salacious scandal, and a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the right time might be more apt.
For Thanksgiving, his mother Angie has flown out from Michigan, and arriving late to the airport to pick her up, Noah finds her with a newfound, boozy friend named Joanne. They met in a bar during a layover in Chicago, Angie explains, and they struck up a camaraderie when they discovered they were both traveling to LA to visit their gay sons.
Noah becomes chaperone to both older ladies as Joanne’s gay son Rod never showed up to pick her up and isn’t answering his phone. Joanne confides that Rod is something of a partyer, and she’s not alarmed when he won’t buzz them in at his apartment. Noah is too nice of a guy to leave her to wait outside with her luggage, so Joanne ends up joining him and his mother for a Friendsgiving dinner hosted by his neighbors, a gay couple Mark and Louis.
Then Joanne receives a phone call from the LAPD. Rod was found dead in his apartment, an apparent drug overdose. But naturally, not everything is as it seems, and after carting Joanne back to Rod’s apartment and overhearing a conversation between the neighbors, Noah begins to piece together an intrigue involving sex, drugs, and life insurance funny-business.
Thornton writes the gay son and mother relationship with authority and endearment. They become unlikely conspirators in snooping, which offers many comic moments as well as a focus for the two who would otherwise be awkward in one another’s company. Noah has barely come to terms with his serostatus himself, and though he’s told Angie, he’s hardly eager to delve into that topic with his mother. Angie is just getting used to being around her son as a single woman; Noah’s father died eighteen months back. They edge around those tough issues in the familiar manner of adult children and their parents, and the two getting re-acquainted as adults is a nice side story.
Beyond Noah’s adventure uncovering what happened to Rod, which is suspenseful fun best left for readers to discover on their own, Noah’s reckoning of how to live as an HIV positive gay man provides another compelling story line. He avoids the attentions of handsome detective Javier O’Shea, defensively asserting to himself sex and love are off the table due to his serostatus. He faces treatment choices, dietary considerations, and AZT side effects, all while being gravely uncertain about his long-term prognosis. His decision about what to do with those challenges is another journey within Thornton’s otherwise light and fast-paced novel, beginning with the question of whether or not to deal with them at all.
Thornton uses pacing, dialogue, and camp to masterful effect, a solid artist of genre fiction who knows how to keep the reader burning through the pages. A slight qualm is the resolution of the murder mystery. Thornton’s clever cues and miscues build high expectations, though there’s plenty to delight mystery readers along the way.
Late Fees is a nifty amateur detective story that stands up to the work of R.D. Zimmerman, Lev Raphael, and Greg Herren, with special appeal for folks who remember fondly gay life before cell phones and Grindr.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters