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February 19, 2014

Review Essay: Nathan Aldyne’s Vermilion and Cobalt

From 1973 to 1992, Gay Community News was a weekly gay and lesbian newspaper published in Boston (indeed, it was the first such publication in the United States). In 1982 GCN published a long review article on gay mysteries titled “Elementary, My Dear,” by Michael Bronski (best known as the author of A Queer History of the United States). Below is an excerpt from that article, focusing on the Nathan Aldyne series, which at the time included only Vermilion and Cobalt. We would love to link to the whole thing, but it does not seem to be available on line. We gained access to the article thanks to our magical New York Public Library card.

Evolving from Holmes and Watson, through Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey, through the witty and sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, the combo of Clarisse and Val permits a neat fusing of the two strains in detective fiction. While Holmes was clearly the deducer and Watson the sounding board, Dorothy Sayers in Busman’s Holiday clearly intends for us to understand that Peter has been humanized by his relationship with Harriet. In The Thin Man, Hammett presents us with a modern marriage a la mode. Nick and Nora are partners, trade wisecracks, and drink equally huge amounts of martinis. Hammett’s The Thin Man is only a minor departure from the harder style of his other novels. The film version (1934) by W.S. Van Dyke, with its facile wit and stylish sophistication, is more of a model for the egalitarian coupling of Val and Clarisse. Intrasexual and non-conjugal, Aldyne’s duo represent the newest stage in the evolution of male and female detectives. Unlike Nora of “The Thin Man” films, who was always putting in her – often case-breaking – two cents’ worth (“But Nicky, what if…”), Clarisse has no hesitation for getting right into the midst of things. The split between deduction and emotion, once totally dichotomized, is now equally split between two characters, each with half of each. The independent woman and the gay man have turned from objects of derision to icons of charm and fascination.

The Clarisse and Valentine books highlight an interesting juncture between gay life and mystery stories. Both Vermilion and Cobalt make use of the socially imposed strictures of secrecy and circumventure in the gay community: it is the perfect setting for literary deception, intrigue, and detection. In Vermilion, when police detective Searcy begins to investigate, he can’t understand the camaraderie and sense of community among the people he meets; his mind goes wild with conspiracy theories.

Both Vermilion and Cobalt owe as much to a gay male sensibility gleaned from Hollywood as from the tradition of mystery and detective fiction. Eschewing more traditional forms of construction, Aldyne constructs each scene in cinematic terms. The page-grinding explanations and machinations that bring so many other mysteries to a standstill are absent here. Like a good film, the narrative runs smoothly, letting the reader experience rather than simply be told what is happening and why.

In many ways, Cobalt is an improvement upon Vermilion. During a P-town summer, Clarisse repeatedly stumbles upon bodies; because it is a tight, close-knit community with lots of odd characters, both victims and suspects range from tricks, to close friends, to family. In many ways it’s not all that different from Miss Marple snooping about St. Mary Mead, only here drag queens replace governesses and coke dealers replace vicars.

From: “Elementary, My Dear!” By Michael Bronski
Gay Community News 10.13 (Oct 16, 1982): 1



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