As regular readers of the blog know, I’m a bit obsessed with the way history is treated in the romance genre. My position has changed a lot over the years (I like to call it “evolving,” as if there’s some teleological process that will result in a better and better perspective, but the jury is still out on that). I’ve become much more accepting of historical omissions, elisions and fictionalizations. But then I read something written in a specific period and I realize just how much we can never capture, no matter how hard we try, because we can’t intellectually or emotionally process the material in the same way today.
The short story I read and excoriated last week set me to thinking about the social and romantic milieu of the 1970s and early 1980s, and I picked up a book from the TBR which is set in 1979. Death Trick, by Richard Stevenson, is a gay mystery with a romantic subplot. Set in in Albany, New York’s gay community, it is the first in Stevenson’s Donald Strachey series.¹ Strachey is a private detective who is hired to trace the missing gay son of a wealthy family; Billy Blount is accused of murdering another gay man but has disappeared before police could apprehend him. His parents are eager to find him and bring him home, even though they don’t seem to think that he is innocent of the crime.
Strachey’s investigation takes place within the community of which he is a part, and the book does a terrific job of recreating the texture of gay life in the late 1970s. An excerpt gives you a sense of the flavor:
A couple of the Central Avenue bars, witnessing the unexpected popularity of the New Decadence, made gestures in that direction. One disco, teetering on the edge of extinction, changed its name from Mary-Mary’s to the Bung Cellar and regained its wandering clientele overnight. Another bar was less successful. The owner of the Green Room attempted a “western” motif by hanging a child’s cowboy hat on a wall sconce, but this was not enough.
As Stevenson notes in a forward to the digital edition of the book, 1979 fell in that brief period between Stonewall and the emergence of the AIDS epidemic.
[The book] came out in the spring of 1981, around the time the first American cases of “gay cancer” were turning up. Within a year, the age of anything-goes was essentially over, and the plague years were upon us. There’s an innocence about Death Trick’s dance club and sex scenes — although the story also makes clear that not everyone back than was healthy and well-adjusted and happy all the time.
Gay men were still subject to harassment and arrest, but gay culture had emerged from the shadows. Stevenson captures all of this: the camaraderie among gay men, the dance/bar/club scene, the casual homophobia of straight America toward both strangers and loved ones, and the sex. Especially the sex.
By the standards of today’s m/m genre, the sex in Stevenson’s book is subtle and understated. There is only one extended sex scene, and it is both integral to the plot and emotionally powerful. It doesn’t take place between our main protagonist and his lover, Timmy, but instead between Strachey and someone from whom he is trying to get information about Blount. The scene is extremely affecting, but I think that readers today would have a tough time with this scene as well as with the overall approach for a number of reasons:
(1) Strachey uses sex to extract information from his source, but he also enjoys the encounter. This contradicts the romance expectation that if the hero has sex with someone other than the person he loves, the sex cannot be fulfilling.
(2) Strachey and Timmy are both attracted to other men during the book, and the reader is given the impression that they occasionally have sex with other people, despite their relationship. When Timmy confronts Strachey about his encounter with the source, he doesn’t criticize him for cheating, but rather for using a vulnerable person.
(3) Sexual exclusivity is not the norm. With one exception, the couples in Death Trick are not shown as self-consciously monogamous.
It’s worth reiterating that Death Trick is not marketed as a romance. It’s a gay mystery, and it was written in the era in which it is set. As someone who remembers that time very well, I can corroborate that the attitudes toward sex Stevenson depicts were common among both gay and straight people. Sexual experimentation and the prevalence of non-monogamous relationships were found in a variety of social groups. Remember the key party scene in The Ice Storm? Normal suburban couples really did participate in those. Two Yankees pitchers swapped wives and lives.
Today, though, while couples may have non-monogamous relationships and experiment sexually, this behavior falls outside the genre definition of romance, and in erotic romance and erotica (even in m/m), it is contrasted with default “vanilla” attitudes and behavior. Romance means one committed, monogamous couple, as per the well-known RWA formulation.
So today’s reader can approach the book as mystery, not a romance. But that perspective would miss that there is a very real romance at the core of the book: the relationship between Strachey and Timmy. They’re not monogamous, but they are committed to each other, and their relationship continues through the series.
As someone growing up in that era, I still see the romance. But I don’t know if contemporary readers could find a non-monogamous relationship romantic, especially given how romance readers feel about infidelity. So you tell me; could you read this and see 1979 on Donald and Timmy’s terms (and mine), or would it be too difficult to overcome our current genre and societal expectations?
¹There is also a series of made-for-TV movies, but these have a very different sensibility and are updated to reflect contemporary times and mores.