Author: Katie Gilmartin
Publisher: Cleis Press
Cover Artist: unknown
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars
Josie O’Conner travels to San Francisco in 1951 to locate her gay brother, a private dick investigating a blackmail ring targeting lesbians and gay men. Jimmy’s friends claim that just before he disappeared he became a rat, informing the cops on the bar community. Josie adopts Jimmy’s trousers and wingtips, battling to clear his name, halt the blackmailers, and exact justice for the many queer corpses. Along the way she rubs shoulders with a sultry chanteuse running a dyke tavern called Pandora’s Box, gets intimate with a red-headed madam operating a brothel from the Police Personnel Department, and conspires with the star of Finocchio’s, a dive so disreputable it’s off limits to servicemen — so every man in uniform pays a visit.
Blackmail, My Love is an illustrated murder mystery deeply steeped in San Francisco’s queer history. Established academic and first-time novelist Katie Gilmartin’s diverse set of characters negotiate the risks of same-sex desire in a tough time for queers. Humor leavens the grave subject matter. Set in such legendary locations as the Black Cat Cafe, the Fillmore, the Beat movement’s North Beach, and the sexually complex Tenderloin, Blackmail, My Love is a singular, visually stunning neo-noir experience.
Katie Gilmartin was recently a guest of Prism Book Alliance. Be Sure to check out their guest post here.
One thing I’ve learned as a curator is that the “olden days” were not better. The more I learn about the past the happier I am to be right in the here and now. I’ve never met a curator who romanticizes the past. We know too much.
As a gay man I’m even more confirmed in this belief. There really were no “good old days” for us. There was only survival and, at best, a cobbled-together happiness based on discretion, constant vigilance and luck.
Katie Gilmartin has produced a fascinating, poignant and rather bleak history wrapped in a noir detective story. Backed up by research carefully done, “Blackmail, My Love” tells the tale of a young lesbian who heads west to San Francisco in 1951 to find her missing gay brother.
The sucker punch here is that San Francisco in 1951 is not a good place for gay folk of any stripe.
As Josephine O’Conner searches for her brother Jimmy amidst the hidden clubs and bars of San Francisco’s post-war demimonde, Gilmartin paints for us a vivid and harrowing portrait of gay life in McCarthy-era San Francisco.
Gilmartin’s prose is self-consciously styled after hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1940s and 50s, and she has tailored her language to echo the vocabulary and tone of that time. It works. But she plunges us into a world no other writers ever considered; a world left unmentioned by the macho likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
Our plucky heroine, dressed as a man and calling herself Joe, picks up all the Nancy Drew archetypes of the period and out of them forges a persona the likes of which I’ve never read (of course, I’ve never actually read lesbian fiction of any sort—so perhaps I’ve missed something). As Joe begins to understand the workings of the blackmailer her brother was investigating, and to see clearly how complicit the police seem to be in the systematic harassment and victimization of queers in the City by the Bay, her character itself grows darker and darker.
Simultaneously, as Joe begins to get to know the denizens of San Francisco’s gay subculture, and begins to understand them and care for them, she becomes stronger and more sympathetic. Her quest is no longer just about her missing brother; it is about a community under siege from the entire socio-political structure of our country.
“When you realize you don’t fit into that happily ever after life the world’s been telling you is your reason for living, you have a chance to become real.”
As a child of Stonewall who came out in the 1970s, I have known plenty of gay men and women of my parents’ generation who managed to live happy lives; so I know this was possible. But it is all too easy from today’s vantage point of Gay-Straight alliances and marriage equality to turn a blind eye to the hard realities of gay life in the past.
Charles Dickens reminded us of the ugliness of modern life in the 19th century—the poverty, violence and disease that ruled the lives of the poor. Katie Gilmartin reminds us that being gay was anything but gay back in the day; and nowhere in America was it harder to be gay than in what is now the capital of gay America.
I loved this book because of its writing and the cinematic vividness with which Gilmartin creates a believable, authentic historical setting. Beyond that, I think that every LGBTQ person under 40 ought to read “Blackmail, my Love,” because this well-crafted novel is also a healthy, if painful, history lesson.
Every kind-hearted straight liberal ought to read Katie Gilmartin’s book, too, because it will remind them that our culture’s shared visions of the Good Old Days inevitably left someone out of the picture.
“Happy Days” indeed.
I would like to thank the publisher for providing me with the eARC of this title in exchange for my honest opinion.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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