A couple of weeks ago (yes, I am a couple of weeks behind in writing up the books I read), I visited a friend in Rochester. What better time, I thought, than to catch up on the Donald Strachey series, the first book of which I read a while ago
. Of course, this series is set in Albany, not Rochester, but eh, it was still the closest to a thematic read I had on hand. And then it turned out that the one I had chosen was set during a massive heatwave, which was extremely not my experience of the weather in November, but still. I'd tried.On the Other Hand, Death
by Richard Stevenson. The second book in the Donald Strachey murder mysteries, starring a gay private investigator in early 1980s upstate New York. In this one, Don is hired by a massive real estate company who's looking to build a mall just outside of town. The only thing preventing them from starting construction is a pair of elderly lesbians who refuse to sell their farm. All their other neighbors have signed away their land – but won't actually be getting the cash unless the ladies sell as well. When homophobic vandalism and threatening letters turn up on the ladies' farm, Don is hired by the very same real estate company to look into it. He's fairly certain the company is responsible, but if they want to pay him thousands of dollars to make themselves look better, Don won't say no. Matters are complicated when a houseguest of the ladies is kidnapped, and an enormous ransom is demanded; the only way they can raise the money is by selling the farm. The missing guest is the boyfriend of a young gay activist currently touring the country to try and convince people to sign up for a nationwide gay strike. Would he fake a kidnapping just to raise awareness? Has the real estate company crossed the line into violence? And will they figure out where the missing man is before he's killed?
I liked this book a lot better than the first one in the series, Death Trick
, though it does continue the trend of terrible names (at least this one is semi-justified in the dialogue). Timmy, Don's longterm boyfriend, is much more of a presence this time, and their relationship has an actual subplot: Don won't stop sleeping around despite Timmy's desire for monogamy. They both feel more like characters and less like empty figures meant only to drive the plot. Even the secondary characters – the elderly lesbians, the gay activist couple, the jerkwad cops – are fleshed out. The evocation of time and place is very well-done, and I quite liked the solution to the mystery. A very fun, quick-paced read. Ice Blues
by Richard Stevenson. I enjoyed On the Other Hand, Death
so much that I went on immediately to this, the third book in the Donald Strachey series. And it was a very good choice, proving just as compulsively readable as its predecessor. The interesting historical (now; it was originally contemporary) detail also continues: Ice Blues
was published in 1987, and unlike the previous two books, here AIDS has begun to have its devastating impact on the gay community. A death caused by AIDS, in fact, becomes a major driver of the plot.
Said plot starts with a bang: one winter evening, Don's car is towed to make way for the snow plows. When he arrives at the city lot a few hours later to pick up his car, there's a dead body in the trunk. It turns out that Don once met the dead guy at a party, and – more shockingly – the dead guy has left him $2.5 million dollars in cash, hidden in a few suitcases currently on their way to Albany from L.A. There's also a letter instructing Don to use the money to clean up the corrupt city government.
Which leads to a lot
of questions: who killed him? Are the people who did it now trying to kill Don? (Spoiler: yes.) Why did he leave the money to Don? And most importantly, where did the money even come from – the dead guy's former drug associates? His grandfather, who was a central part of said corrupt government? The unknown and possibly imaginary man in L.A. whose will legitimized the money? Ice Blues
continues the welcome trend of fleshing out the side characters in this series, and I particularly loved the role Timmy got to play here. (The best kind of melodrama!) Brutal winter weather is a constant throughout the book, and I felt a lot of empathy with Don's plans to decamp for somewhere tropical. On the other hand, I'd expected there to be more about what the rise of AIDS meant to this community and these characters, but well... Stevenson is going hard for that hard-boiled style, so I can't expect anyone to talk about their feelings. However much I might want them to.
As a side note: I read both of these books as ebooks, and some editor or publisher or whoever has done a terrible job transferring them from the print editions. Weird breaks in the middle of paragraphs, random italics, and typos on nearly every page. If that kind of thing renders a book unreadable for you, you might want to put in the effort of chasing down the original print books. Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition
by Buddy Levy. Nonfiction about the Greely expedition (also called the Lady Franklin Bay expedition), yet another of the many terrible Arctic disasters that occured to (or were caused by) various explorers.
In 1881 American Army lieutenant Greely and his 24 followers (mostly scientists or other army men, plus two local Inuit men and one random French doctor) headed up to Lady Franklin Bay (an extremely ominous name that Levy somehow never points out the irony of! Perhaps it was too obvious?) near the very northernmost tip of Greenland, far out of the range of habitable lands. They intended to spend three years there, collecting various scientific data (on weather, astronomical events, the function of magnets so near to the north pole, etc), exploring the mostly unmapped areas to the west and east and, if possible, sending a sledge team to the north pole itself, which would make them the first to reach it, claiming the glory for the Americans instead of the British (who held the record for Farthest North at the time). The plan was for a supply ship to reach them each summer with fresh food, clothing and, if needed, men. As you might guess if you're remotely familiar with the history of polar exploration, the supply ships never arrived, due to a combination of ice blocking the way and political arguments back in Washington DC. In August 1883, Greely decided they had to abandon their station, so the whole crew headed south using a combination of small ships, sledges, and walking. They made it two hundred miles before further travel was halted by winter weather – still alone and with extremely little food left. Out of 25 men, seven survived that winter to be rescued in June 1884, with one more dying soon after.
This is a fascinating enough piece of history on its own, rife with dramatic scenes of man v nature, brutal endurance, wolf attacks, polar bears, the northern lights, bad decision making, theft, murder, madness, and (of course) allegations of cannibalism. Unfortunately Levy is not the person to tell this story. He engages in practically every single tick that I hate in nonfiction writers. He imagines details that he can't possibly know two hundred years later: He observed them and everything else, squinting through his oval spectacles at the breathtaking expanse, trying to visualize what lay ahead. [...] Massive slabs of glacial ice cleaved off the shore and crashed into sea, spewing freezing brine over the gunwales and frosting his sharp narrow face and pointed black beard. His heart raced with anticipation, but his mind was much burdened.
If you wanted to write a novel, Levy, just write a novel! I don't need your fictionalizations in a history book!
Levy also focuses on mind-numbing minutiae while ignoring the larger context. For example, he spends chapters describing the foot-by-foot route Greely and co took south: on August 26th, a storm drove them east! On September 1st they made it back south! On September 16th they floated back north! On September 29th they finally made it back south! On September 22nd they went east instead! On September 27th they went west! On September 28th they went south again! (THIS IS NOT AN EXAGGERATION, IN FACT I COULD GO ON FOR MUCH LONGER) Was my summary boring to read? Well, imagine spending nearly a hundred pages on it, and you have a good idea of the middle section of Labyrinth of Ice
. On the other hand, topics that I eagerly would have read a hundred pages of are skipped entirely: what was the point of all that scientific data they took? What questions were they trying to answer? What did they successfully learn? (Levy comments in the epilogue that their weather measurements are important to scientists today studying global warming, but I'm going to take a wild guess and assume that wasn't the original intention.) Levy mentions briefly that another of the expedition's goals was to search for the missing USS Jeanette
– what was the story there? What was the cultural context around polar exploration, scientific expeditions, or stories of survival? How long did their record for Farthest North last? Why did they wait so long before they started eating the local shellfish? Levy mentions some of the men going "mad" as starvation set in – but what does that mean, in actual medical terms? Were they suffering just from calorie deprivation, or was some combination of scurvy and other diseases also affecting them? There are a hundred more subjects that the story of the Greely expedition could shed light on, but Levy ignores them all in favor of a tedious accounting of exactly how many miles were covered each day.
As a side note, I could also have used way
more maps. There are a few included at the beginning of the book, but there are so many side trips and back-and-forths that a map for every chapter wouldn't have been out of place. I tried to follow along on Google Maps, but either place names have changed or Google hasn't bothered to finely map the Arctic Circle, because many of the locations Levy mentioned just weren't there.
I'm not objecting to the genre of polar exploration histories; I've read plenty that were exciting, enlightening, hard to put down and even, occasionally, funny. Labyrinth of Ice
is definitively not one of them. I can't imagine recommending this book to anyone unless they had to write a report on the Greely expedition, and even then there are probably better resources. I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.This entry was originally posted at https://brigdh.dreamwidth.org/585289.html. Please comment there using OpenID.