An Overview by Sam Phillips
For those of you who haven’t read the Donald Strachey series by Richard Stevenson, they are, for my money, some of the funniest, smartest PI novels around. The guy is just a terrific writer! Maybe even brilliant.
Death Trick (1981)
In the series opener Albany PI Donald Strachey takes on a sensational murder case within the gay community — which just happens to be up his own alley. This one is made memorable by Stevenson’s portrait of gay life from nearly a quarter of a century ago (remember bath houses?!) Appealing, believable characters (Timothy Callahan, Strachey’s Jesuit-educated lover is a creative gem) and a wicked sense of humor lift this novel “straight” out of the genre.
On the Other Hand, Death (1984)
Extortion, kidnapping and murder complicate Strachey’s attempt to protect a lesbian couple from a vicious campaign of intimidation. Twists and turns abound in the second Strachey caper. There is the usual amusing cast of friends and foes, numerous sexual escapades and plenty of laughs. The evolving relationship between Strachey and lover Timmy Callahan provides some of the wittiest repartee in any mystery of recent memory.
Ice Blues (1986)
One of my favorites in a favorite series. Albany’s only gay PI takes on that city’s political machine when Strachey finds a murdered man planted in his car. Smooth and funny, but with a definite kick, the third Strachey mystery never fails to entertain though the plot leans more toward zany than suspenseful. As with good scotch, you can soak up this book in one sitting and be giggling out loud before you know it.
The relationship between Strachey and his lover Timmy is featured more prominently in the third book than in any of the other six novels. The Timmy and Don partnership is (for my money) the most intelligent, believable and entertaining in gay mysterydom. In almost any mysterydom, for that matter.
Third Man Out (1992)
In book four of this under-appreciated series, Stevenson deals with the touchy issue of the forced “outing” of gays by other gays.
Reluctantly, Strachey agrees to act as body guard to Queer Nation activist John Rutka, who has inspired mucho death threats following a conscienceless campaign of outings. Strachey gets disgusted, quits and someone burns Rutka to a crisp.
As usual Stevenson agilely juggles a variety of themes: hypocrisy within the Catholic church, euthanasia, AIDS, the right to privacy for public figures. These are topics addressed by many mystery writers with varying degrees of insight and sensitivity. Stevenson, as ever, manages to be funny and rational at the same time.
A Shock to the System (1995)
He twists, he turns, he ties up loose ends: Richard Stevenson is one of the best PI writers out there. I suspect his Don Strachey series isn’t taken as seriously as it should be (as seriously, for example, as Michael Nava’s downer Henry Rios series) because they’re so funny. Funny, yes, but smart. And you don’t have to be gay to enjoy Stevenson’s clever, crafty mysteries. True, the books are often political in theme, but the tone is non-strident and convincing.
In this one, three clients (count ’em, three) want Strachey to investigate the apparent suicide of Paul Craig, including Craig’s psychiatrist who was treating Craig with aversion therapy for his homosexuality. And then, just as fast, all three want Strachey to drop the case. Ain’t gonna happen. Another of my all-time favorites.
Chain of Fools (1996)
In book six, a conscience-stricken Timmy pressures Don to investigate attacks on the life of a sort-of-newspaper heiress. In fact, Timmy wants to help. Opportunities for mirth and mayhem abound, but Stevenson ignores them as he sends Strachey in pursuit of his suspects, including possibly homicidal siblings and a possibly homicidal media conglomerate. Strachey’s detecting uncovers an earlier murder, a jewel robbery and more than a few family skeletons. Not the strongest in the series — Stevenson’s heart doesn’t seem to be in it.
Strachey’s Folly (1998)
Written in 1999, this one seems to be the final book in the series. Timmy and Don are in Washington, D.C. to view the AIDS Memorial Quilt with their friend Maynard. They discover a panel for one of Maynard’s ex-lovers — a man who was alive two weeks earlier. Not long after, Maynard is gunned down in an attack that seems a little too coincidental, and Strachey sets out to learn what secrets lie behind the ex-lover’s disappearance.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Turns out Sam was wrong. In 2003, perhaps inspired by the upcoming made-for-television movies for Here!, Stevenson brought Strachey back in Tongue-Tied, which was followed by Death Vows (2008), The 38 Million Dollar Smile (2009) and The Last Thing I Saw (2012). It was announced shortly after Stevenson’s death in 2022 that a final novel featuring Strachey, Chasing Rembrandt, was to be published posthumously.
- Death Trick (1981) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- On the Other Hand, Death (1984) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Ice Blues (1986) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Third Man Out (1992) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- A Shock to the System (1995) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Chain of Fools (1996) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Strachey’s Folly (1998) | Buy this book
NOT COVERED IN THIS REVIEW
- Tongue Tied (2003) | Buy this book
- Death Vows (2008) | Buy this book | Buy the audio
- The 38 Million Dollar Smile (2009) | Buy this book
- The Last Thing I Saw (2012) | Buy this book
- Chasing Rembrandt (to come)
Respectfully submitted by Sam Phillips (December 2002)