Peace Corps Writers
Review
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Tongue Tied
A Donald Strachey Mystery
by Richard Stevenson
aka Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64)
New York: St. Martins Press
February 2003
208 pages
$22.95

Tongue Tied
  Reviewed by Mike Learned (Malawi 1963–65)
 
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I HAVE LONG BEEN ADDICTED to good mystery series. My tastes have progressed over the years. Today it’s less blood and guts. More social commentary, interesting characters, and contemporary political and social life are what catch my eye. For twenty years my evolving mystery tastes have been refined by Donald Strachey, a gay private eye based in Albany, New York. As interesting as Strachey is his longtime partner/lover, Timmy Callahan, a witty, righteous, bordering on the prim, former Peace Corps Volunteer. Tongue Tied is the eighth volume the Donald Strachey series that I’m banking on continuing for another twenty years.
      Strachey is the creation of Dick Lipez who writes the Strachey series under the name of Richard Stevenson. Dick explains that when he started writing the series in the late 70s, he was going through a personal sea change. His identity as an “out” gay man was emerging, his marriage was ending and he had two kids in grade school in a small Western Massachusetts community. He decided to use his first and middle names, and leave his last name out. He continued his life in journalism as Dick Lipez.
     One of the reasons I have long read mysteries is for their social and cultural observations. I have a job that requires travel much of the time. I spend many hours in airports, on airplanes and in hotel rooms in not very glamorous communities around the country. I’d croak without something fast and energizing to read along the way. A series like Strachey’s provides me with a sense of continuity and ongoing structure. Current events, gay and human rights issues, progressive politics, social values, pop music are all an important part of the Strachey scene. Friends, clients and characters from earlier volumes in the series show up in later ones. People age, mature, stabilize, or in some cases get crazier. Over the years Strachey has become more domesticated, tied to and awed by Timmy, a political operative working in New York State politics and a very smart man.
     Tongue Tied tells the story of Strachey’s taking on as a client, right-wing radio talk show host Jay Plankton, know as J-Bird. J-Bird is a smarmy take-off on any number of current FM “shock jocks” around the country. An obscure gay rights group that’s been out of the scene for more than 20 years is harassing poor J-Bird. This group and some of its members were last heard from in Death Trick, Lipez’s first volume in the series set in 1979. As in real-life, those faces from the past keep turning up, sometimes surprisingly. Pranks rapidly progress to kidnappings and the threat of death. Strachey is dealing with people from all edges of the political/social spectrum. What are the relationships and who’s doing what to whom?
     The real magic of this latest volume is its setting in time. Tongue Tied takes place during the late summer of 2000. Hilary and Rick are slugging it out in New York. Al and George W are slugging it out nationally. Reality TV is yet to come — “American Idol,” “Joe Millionaire,” “The Bachelorette” are mere crazy-ass ideas in some television producer’s mind. And the reality TV of the November 2000 presidential elections, the un-reality TV of the following September 11, and now Iraq; all beyond my imagination back then. A time so close, two and half years ago, yet so far. That hectic summer and fall now seem like an amazingly innocent, carefree time, ancient history. If only we knew. I’m glad I didn’t.
     “The Mystery” has become an extraordinary agile and creative literary genre, popular and important. Mysteries are set in almost every society and sub-culture, in countries on six continents. There are historical mysteries and science fiction mysteries. The best describe cultural idiosyncrasies and social values, and give the reader a sense of recognition and learning. And there are always new additions to the genre, something intriguing, an arresting new protagonist, a distinct new location. Alexander McCall Smith’s, Mma Ramotswe, and her No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana being only one of the more recent and delightful additions to this ever-expanding literary family.
         Lipez is socially, politically, and musically astute, well read and a fine writer. As a result, Strachey’s dialogue is sharp, snappy, hip and very knowing. He’s also become more introspective over the years. He’s grown up; well almost. Timmy still has some work to do. After reading Tongue Tied I decided to go back and re-read the previous seven Strachey volumes. I’m about half way through. Tongue Tied is but the current chapter in one of the best chronicles of rapidly changing American social history and it’s all wrapped up in a series of tales told by a gay private eye.
 
Mike Learned is a technical trainer specializing in web content and other forms of complex documentation. He is active in Peace Corps politics. Currently he is the Group President and Newsletter Editor of the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual RPCVs (www.lgbrpcv.org), a long-time affiliate of the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA). You can reach him at 103571.2317@compuserve.com
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