January 26, 2005

BOOKS: Moth and Flame, John Morgan Wilson (2004)

Sixth of Morgan's mysteries featuring ex-journalist Benjamin Justice.

First, a hand to St. Martin's, the publisher of the series. Morgan's books have always been marketed in the same way as any of their other books, rather than targeted specifically (or exclusively) to a gay audience. The cover of this one even makes reference to Wilson being a winner of the Lambda Literary Award, along with the Edgar.

As for the book, it's one of the best in this solid series. Justice is an ex-journalist, forced to retire after a Janet Cooke-like scandal involving some fictional elements in a Pulitzer-winning series. Now he works as a freelance writer.

As Moth and Flame opens, he's been hired by the city of West Hollywood (CA) to complete a booklet on the city's historical building, its original author having been murdered in an apartment burglary. Justice quickly finds himself caught up in a controversy over the fate of a group of dilapidated cotteges. The city's active preservation group wants them restored and declared historical landmarks; their owner wants to raze them and build condos. Both sides believe that Justice's booklet has the potential to sway opinion to their side, if only they can convince him to present the issue properly.

Justice doesn't particularly want to get drawn into the preservation drama, or the investigation into the original author's death -- it will come as no surprise that the two are connected -- but his best friend is the Los Angeles Times reporter assigned to the murder case, and his disagreement with some of her journalistic tactics helps lead him to do some investigating of his own.

Wilson gives us a fine array of colorful suspects and other characters here. There's the city's chief computer whiz, an aloof and chilly man; the ex-porn star city councilman who makes no secret of his desire to see those cottages torn down; a young Russian immigrant whose struggle with the legacy of his father lead to his involvement in the case; and the tough-as-nails detective whose search for her own missing father proves more important than she'd imagined.

Then there's Justice himself, a terrific character, loaded with guilt over an impossibly difficult childhood and his journalistic scandal. Throughout this book, he's still adjusting to a physical disability (inflicted in the previous volume) and to the side effects of Prozac. And in a story where fathers and their absence is a central theme, Justice finds that the ghosts of his own past are being called forth more strongly than he'd like.

More than earlier volumes in the series, Moth and Flame makes fine use of its West Hollywood setting. I happen to live in West Hollywood, and Wilson gets all of the details right. It's not just the geography, though that's done right, too, and there are no embarassing scenes where a character travels eight miles in three minutes; he gets the complicated relationship between the city's large gay population and its sizable Russian immigrant community, the mixed feelings of a middle-aged man living in a city that often seems to value youth above all else, and the obsessiveness some residents feel about preserving the city's history, perhaps the result of a civic inferiority complex (West Hollywood as an independent city is only 20 years old).

Terrific stuff, and recommended with enthusiasm.

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