My bookstore specialized in what the trade calls “hand sells” – a customer would come in and say “I’m looking for a mystery set in Istanbul,” and we’d jump up to pull a copy of Belshazzar’s Daughter, or Already Dead, for a customer craving a vampire tale, or The Hot Rock for a customer in search of “something really funny.” The requests got a lot more esoteric, of course; we were secretly convinced that some people just wanted to play Stump the Bookseller.
Nevertheless, I was ill-prepared when a guy bellied up to the counter and asked if we had anything about “evil fruits.” I blinked. “Evil fruits?” I said. “You mean, umm…..like…..wicked strawberries? Poisonous…..uhhhh….melons?”
He snorted. “I mean books where the bad guy is a FRUIT,” he said, clearly talking to a bear of very little brain. “Where the killer is ho-mo-sex-su-al.”
As it happened, there was a book I could think of that fit the bill, and it was a very good book, so I sold it to him, and that would have been the end of it, except that I couldn’t stop thinking about evil fruits. The customer was gay, and for the longest time, I had trouble with the notion of wanting to see oneself as the bad guy. Don’t gay men get stigmatized enough? Don’t we all want to see ourselves as heroes?
Yes but. As I pondered, an image from “Animal House” swam into my mind: Donald Sutherland lounging in front of a blackboard on which “SATAN” is scrawled in chalk. He bites into an apple and asks his students, “Is Milton trying to tell us that being bad…is more fun than being good?” Heck, any actor can tell you that the bad guys get all the good lines.
Furthermore, in crime fiction, they almost always get the good motivations. An awful lot of protagonists are crime-solvers by profession – cops, lawyers, private eyes. They may have a personal passion for this case or that one, but at some level, they catch the killers in order to pay the rent. It’s the baddies, by contrast, who have sworn loyalty to weird cabals or are avenging long-dead lovers or are working through childhood traumas or have twisted sexual desires that compel them to murder people using weapons from Shakespeare’s plays. There are exceptions to this rule, no question. But in an awful lot of mysteries, the heroes are cardboard cutouts, while the villains have quirks and personalities. Good guys, you might say, are all alike, but every bad guy is bad in his or her own way.And it’s that individuation, I think, that my customer was after. Absolutely, make gay men and lesbians the protags: Depict them as boring and white-bread and dully virtuous, because some of them are. And some of them are wacky neighbors, or maiden aunts with short hair and comfortable shoes. But some of them are twisted, wicked wackos, and to refuse to portray them in that light is an oddball form of bigotry. Oranges are not the only fruits. Some fruits are (second) bananas or apricots or eggplants. And some are evil fruits. They may not deserve celebration – I’m not suggesting that New York’s Pride parade feature a float saluting gay serial killers—but in a very weird way they deserve to be seen, to be recognized as living in the fruit-bowl. If nothing else, it will make for better books.