Snowball In Hell

Snowball In Hell_JoshLanyon_10834443



Regardless of what the promotional blurb intimates, this novella is, first and foremost, an historical murder mystery and police procedural. Secondly, the story is an expose of some of the era’s concepts of what constitutes “normal” and “legal,” concepts so entrenched in the societal framework of the time that their very import is enough to drive a soul to the brink of suicide. And finally, as a result of the other two scenarios, this is a story of two men who find the beginning of peace and salvation in each other.

The year is 1943 and the place is Los Angeles. That means America is in the middle of WWII. The war is significant to the story because at least three of our characters, including the two main protagonists, have been seriously wounded in combat. And they have returned home with various scars, physical and mental. On the other end of the spectrum, the murder victim had been removed from the draft, never to see combat, because of the influence his captain-of-industry father had with the local board members.

But the year and the place carry another significance. Despite the closed eyes and turned heads often afforded to the Hollywood community and its LA offshoots, the closet door is firmly and legally shut. Quite frankly, a person of that time could be arrested just on the suspicion of being homosexual, no evidence required. And that same suspicion could end a person’s career in a heartbeat and/or have the person committed to a mental institution.

From these societal issues, Josh Lanyon constructs a full-bodied mystery. As the tale opens, LAPD Homicide Lieutenant Mathew Spain is looking down on a body that has been thrown into the La Brea Tar Pit. But for the winter cold and rain keeping the tar stiff, the body would probably never have been found. But it has been found and there is no ID on the body. Since the victim is rather expensively dressed, Spain looks over to the reporters hovering close by, thinking one of them might have some idea as to who the man is.

Spain recognizes all the reporters save one, a thin, wiry, attractive male. The lead detective for the case tells Spain that the man is Nathan Doyle, a decorated war correspondent who now works for one of the local but highly reputable newspapers after being critically wounded in the war. Spain calls over Doyle as well as the lone female reporter, and shows them the body.

The female reporter recognizes the victim immediately and blurts out the name. But it is Doyle’s reaction that rivets Spain’s attention. Doyle has jerked in surprise, he has paled, and he has tried to cover it all up.

Spain casually questions both reporters, trying not to spook Doyle any further. His experience tells him that Doyle is fudging the truth on just how he knows the victim. His experience also tells him that Doyle’s surprise contained a large element of fear, but not the kind of fear that is evidenced when a perpetrator is trapped. This was the fear of being thought guilty of something else entirely.

Spain’s war injuries may make him a quasi-administrator now, but he has not lost his field shills. It takes him less than half a day and a quiet stakeout to discover that Nathan Doyle is gay. Now Spain knows the source of Doyle’s fear. Just by knowing the victim, he will be investigated, his sexual orientation will probably be exposed and he will go to jail.

At this point, Mathew Spain has two major mysteries to solve. First is the murder of Phil Arlen, the younger son of a prominent and influential oil magnate. It seems that Arlen was a nasty little creature, a ne’er-do-well favorite son, a spousal abuser, a gambler with large debts and no money to repay, and a womanizer.

The girl friend on the side, his refusal to work a regular job and his father’s constant financial underwriting makes Phil’s wife, his brother, his wife’s brother, his brother’s wife, the gambling club’s owners and even his father very viable suspects in the murder. And to top it off, Phil Arlen had supposedly been kidnapped and held for ransom on the very weekend of his murder. And, yes, the large ransom had been paid.

So Doyle, in short order, is pretty far down the suspect list, but he is the object of Spain’s second mystery, the mystery of his own feelings. Spain has always known that he is bisexual, and he has always been protected from his leaning toward male alliances by the love he has for his wife. But with his wife dead, Spain is now ripped to the core by the depth of the attraction he feels toward Nathan Doyle, an innate pull he has had since the first time he laid eyes on the man at the tar pits.

As Josh Lanyon alternates the story between the POV of Spain and that of Doyle, we learn far more about Doyle than about Spain. Doyle is not bisexual and has none of the cultural protections that Spain has enjoyed his entire life. Lanyon brings out very clearly the uncertainty and the depression that rule Doyle’s life. Lanyon also makes it very clear why Doyle feels he must discover enough evidence to turn Spain’s official attention clearly and permanently away from him. The question of wanting Spain’s personal attention is another matter altogether.

The mystery that is Phil Arlen’s death is a well-crafted one. It is very easy to miss the clues that point to the killer’s identity amidst the lies, the screw-ups by the investigators under Spain and the emotional tension between Spain and Doyle. Throw in Christmas and its tendency to prompt suicides among people in the grip of personal trauma and the story just gets more absorbing with every turn of the page.

But as you read through this most excellent tale, always keep in mind, page by page, incident by incident, that the story is taking place in 1943. The idea of gay rights may be past the Spanish Inquisition phase at this point, but the concept is still firmly entrenched in the Salem Witch Trials construct.

Only with a firm and constant grip on the historical time frame can the reader fully understand and appreciate the terror felt by the main protagonists over their circumstances. It is to Josh Lanyon’s credit as a writer that I could understand why a gay man in that era might truly think death was a better choice than life. But the naked emotions expressed by Spain in the final scene, his plea for life, his wish for a future, are perhaps the best words that Lanyon writes in a novella full of excellent expression.

Cover Art From Goodreads


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