A few months ago, the Daily Planet received a galley of a forthcoming mystery novel: Sweet Poison, by local author Ellen Hart. I was about to pass it to another reviewer when I noticed the publicist’s accompanying letter, which quoted Entertainment Weekly calling Hart “a top novelist in the cultishly popular gay mystery genre.”
Sweet Poison, a novel by Ellen Hart. Published by St. Martin’s Minotaur (2008). $24.95.
There’s a whole genre of gay mysteries? It’s cultishly popular? One of its top novelists lives in Minneapolis? What’s a “gay mystery,” anyway? My interest was piqued, and I added the book to the pile on my nightstand.
A “gay mystery,” it turns out, is simply a genre novel with more gay characters than the average whodunit. Several of the most prominent characters in Sweet Poison, Hart’s 16th (!) novel starring Uptown restaurateur Jane Lawless, are gay: Jane herself, her past and current partners, her best friend, and two men who are close friends of a young woman found tased to death.
The young woman was a volunteer for the gubernatorial campaign of Jane’s father, an attorney who once defended the man who becomes the prime suspect in the murder investigation. At the invitation of the suspect’s aunt, Jane opens her own private investigation. (If it seems odd to invite a restaurateur to investigate a murder, remember that this is a restaurateur who’s starred in 15 mystery novels.) The gears of the plot engage as efficiently as you’d expect from a pro like Hart, and the supper-serving sleuth has several plausible suspects to sift through before she gets to the bottom of things in an adequately exciting action scene. In the meantime, she tries to save her long-distance relationship from the stress of her ambitious career (she’s planning to open a swanky new joint in Stillwater) and surreptitious sabatoge by a jealous ex. Jane manages, though she does occasionally break a sweat.
The novel is a breezy read, but Hart takes her characters seriously and allows every major player the space to develop emotional depth. She has fun dropping local references and writing dialogue for characters like Jane’s friend Cordelia, the artistic director of a repertory theater. (“There’s a foreign scent in the air,” says Jane. “Foreign as in…Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet foreign?” asks Cordelia. “Or are we talking really really foreign, like Gort or ET?”)
My one quibble with this effective genre exercise is that Hart leaves unsolved the mystery that is likely to most intrigue local readers. Judging by the cover illustration, Jane’s house fronts directly on Lake Calhoun. Whom, we’re left wondering, is the elusive Realtor who can find a property like that?
Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.