James Lear: the history-based erotica
I have been wanting to write this post for quite a while now, and now seems like a good time, as I find myself reading yet another one of the novels by one of my favourite MM erotica authors, James Lear.
I discovered my first Lear novel due to the most bizarre of researches. I was planning a huge project on historical mystery novels and was curious if there were MM books which fitted the bill for the research question I was working on. Hence, believe it or not, the discovery of James Lear became my first real foray into the world of both explicit and MM erotica, and in particular, his novels which have historical settings (there are others, but that is for another post).
The ‘Mitch Mitchell’ books are where I began, and are James Lear’s homage to Agatha Christie and the Golden Age of British mystery fiction. The Back Passage is a bawdy whirlwind tour of the country house mystery. Mitch proves himself a very capable amateur detective, yet his capabilities come more from his ability to fall into danger and his eagerness to fuck his way from one clue to another. True to the mystery fiction genre, he even has a sidekick, in the form of his oldest friend, ‘Boy’ Morgan, whose seduction early on leads to a closeness that is the delight and the curse of their relationship throughout this and the next two books. In general, there is a light-heartedness to this novel, and sex galore, involving the most colourful caricatures of the archetypes of mystery fiction – the villain, the household, and the butler in particular. I love this book for its impressive erotic twist on Christie; anyone who knows me at all well knows that I am an Agatha Christie obsessive, and it takes quite a bit to impress me with any adaptation of her work. This does.
The Mitch books do have a coathanger over which the individual narratives are draped, and The Secret Tunnel sees this continue, as Mitch and Boy develop their uncomfortable relationship around the social difficulties Boy encounters, namely, that he is to be married off. But this novel sees other features return, too, as Lear utilises Christie once again, this time paying homage to her train mysteries (Murder on the Orient Express is the most famed, but The Mystery of the Blue Train is the closest to this novel). The story becomes darker, as Mitch is embroiled in a murder as he travels along the tracks, and encounters a member of the police force who proves himself a real danger to everything Mitch holds dear, and that which should be erotic and pleasurable. There is a definite tone shift in this book, and power play is at the backbone of this novel from the start, and, to me, it’s a prime example of the sexual and danger combining into something arousing and unnerving.
If this is the feeling created by The Secret Tunnel, then A Sticky End delves even further into the darkness of Mitch’s world. It pays lip service to the notion of the locked room murder, but the genre-adaptation and its many tweaks pale into insignificance with the advent of a crime that is too close for comfort and threatens to destroy those closest to the amateur detective. Desire, temptation and danger come to a head in this novel. I shan’t tell you how the story plays out, but I will say that the man we meet at the beginning of The Back Passage watches and plays in a world that he looks upon very differently when he realises that everything he once thought was a game is seen as damaging, even lethal, and threatens to break his world apart.
This series began as a trilogy, but I am delighted to have discovered a fourth one that was released a few months ago. The Sun Goes Down continues the adventures of Mitch, now completely self-styled as a private detective. On holiday in the Mediterranean, Mitch finds himself on the island of Gozo, surrounded by what he hopes will be susceptible army and navy types, not to mention a young man he meets on the boat on the journey there. When there is a murder, Mitch is convinced the police are covering up a ‘queer scandal’, and sets about solving the case, even though it leads him into danger. This one I am still reading, but so far it’s as deliciously erotic, subtly comedic, and wonderfully written as the previous three!
I never hesitate to recommend the James Lear ‘Mitch Mitchell’ novels to anyone who reads erotica, even if you don’t normally read MM (or MMMMM…) erotica. What I would say is pick your starting point wisely, depending on your usual reading preferences over other genre points. Regardless of whether you would usually tap into the mystery genre, the Mitch Mitchell series’ begins with a level of lightheartedness and comedy, but that does not mean the underlying and important social themes are treated lightly. Indeed they are not, and the historical social injustice and censorship of the gay community is treated with respect and sensitivity, and above all, brutal honesty. However, If you want your introduction to Lear’s work to be a little darker from the offset, and steeped in history, my recommendations are The Palace of Varieties, Hot Valley and The Low Road.
Lear’s seeming fascination with intertextuality and adaptation continues in his other historical-based books. The Low Road is Lear’s individualistic satiric take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. It is Scotland in 1705, and Charles Gordon is unaware of how his family played its heroic role in the Jacobite Rebellion. In wanting to discover the truth about his father, he is kidnapped, and all sorts of sexy shenanigans follow. Hot Valley tackles American history, the Civil War, and the issue of race and colour at the same time as it displays all the usual down and dirty eroticism of a typical Lear book. A relationship between a spoilt New Englander, Jack Edgerton, and the son of a runaway Virginia slave is as taboo as the Civil War is dangerous to them. I do feel that a degree of angst in this book permeates the pages. I, personally, don’t have a problem with that kind of read at all, as my bookcases are overflowing with literary fiction with more than enough angst for everyone. But it may not be to everyone’s taste, and particularly so if you begin with the Mitch books. I don’t think it should be ignored, by any means, and if you love historical fiction, this is a decent place to start, and especially if you have an interest in American history.
However, I have a particular soft spot for The Palace of Varieties. This novel explores a little of British history; set in the 1930s, it pays particular attention to both the musical theatre companies and the power dynamics of those who own, and those who are owned, just in order to get by. Paul Lemoyne begins in humble origins and finds a job as a music hall stagehand, at the Palace of Varieties. But it doesn’t take long for him to figure out that there’s a great deal of money to be made from those who lurk around the stage door. We follow Paul’s progress from the most base prostitution, through the societal ranks, to the upper echelons of society, as it literally does anything – and anyone – for money. But, despite what he thinks, he is always controlled by the man who took him under his corrupting wing and made Paul a lover and a sought-after backside for the high payers.
I don’t want to spoil the book, should you choose to read it, so I shan’t say more. But do look out for a very interesting scene involving an object on the desk of the music hall owner. Had my eyes watering! I also wouldn’t want you to think that the book is devoid of a depth of emotion. Absolutely not. My love of a couple of the characters in this novel is indebted to the pathos Lear brings to their situations. I think it’s a wonderful, roller-coaster of a read, and one which I’ve returned to more than once (and not just for the pages with the turned down corners!).
If you have not yet experienced the James Lear novels, I can’t recommend them highly enough. You do have to hold your tongue in cheek a lot, and they have certain quirks of style, but you can be certain that if he is writing a serious scene, then he means every criticism, and works hard to reflect the historical realities and difficulties of his protagonists, and of their world. He brings them to the fore, leaving the reader with an unnerving juxtaposition of blatant and explicit erotic elements, social commentary, and (despite the deliberate sexual predatory of some of Lear’s main characters) a tangled mess, as the author sees it, of the psychology of homosexuality.
These are no longer cheap to get hold of new directly on Amazon, so shopping around the other sellers there or elsewhere might be necessary, and to my knowledge they are not available as e-books. But if you can get hold of them, or can persuade your library to find it for you (and I’d love to see the face of any librarian you ask!), it will be worth it.