To affirm that Lambda-Award winner Jeffrey Round writes quick-paced gay pulp fiction is not to denigrate either the genre or this talented writer. It is merely to recognize the character of his writing in which the central figures are gay detectives or private investigators, where some of the other fictional characters are also gay, and where some of the themes advanced by the fiction pertain to gay issues. However, it is necessary to point out that the gay quotient, while a central component, is not necessarily the driving force. In the Bradford Fairfax novels (such as The P-Town Murders, Death in Key West, or Vanished in Vallarta), the fact that Fairfax is a handsome gay secret agent, upholder of justice, and sexy hunk is crucial to some of the dramatic and satiric allure of the tales—as are the gay ambience of Provincetown (Massachusetts), Key West, or Puerto Vallarta, for instance, where the reader is apt to meet such camp characters as a transvestite ghost; fluttery, a flamboyant female-impersonator named Cinder Lindquist; lesbian café owner Big Ruby; cosmetically and surgically enhanced Jarod Scythes; half-blood Cherokee Little Wing; blue-haired “twink” Zach; the exotic Aztec Drag Queen Esmeralda; and various raunchy, romping characters in gay resorts where pheromones permeate the settings and where sex can be a thing of great acrobatic agility and virtuosity. Camp wit is writ large in these tales, and though the permutations of plot can sometimes seem inordinately high, the exaggerations can be put aside because of the compelling ambience and dialogue. Moreover, the principal themes are always connected to contemporary reality: sexual identity, drug use, desire, relationships, love, generation gaps, political chicanery, and existential authenticity.
The Dan Sharp mysteries are less flamboyant and less camp in characterization, though the sense of place and wit as large as ever. In The Jade Butterfly, that begins with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest and massacre and moves swiftly to Toronto and more briefly to Hamilton, Round creates a firm sense of place with his quick evocation of the Forbidden City and the Square, Toronto’s gay district, Leslieville, and the Bridle Path, and Hamilton (with its “smoke-belching chimneys and flame-throwing up-thrust”). But what’s a setting without a plot and interesting characters? In what is his third Dan Sharp mystery (following Lake on the Mountain and Pumpkin Eater), the gay private investigator (father of a teenage son out of a one-night stand) finds himself hired by a mysterious but strikingly handsome young Chinese man named Ren (who represents himself as a cultural ambassador for trade and tourism) to find his long-lost sister, Ling, whom he believes survived the Tiananmen massacre and is somewhere in Canada. Ren and Dan are sexually attracted to each other, and this is where the personal and the political, the sexual and the criminal get entangled. If Ling is alive, Ren would like her to return the jade butterfly, a family heirloom. But before you can remember the plot of The Maltese Falcon, Round raises the ante, showing how Dan’s certitude of certain things gets shaken to the core. The closer Dan gets to finding Ling, the more confused he becomes about the brother, sister, politics, and his own self. Warned by his friend Donny that relationships can be dangerous, Dan is forced to agree by a concatenation of intense plot complications.
The way Round evokes Dan Sharp in this page-turner is admirable in its psychological tremors, representing the man’s self-doubt about his ability to be an effective parent to a son going through his own issues of adolescence, as well as the man’s painful acknowledgement that he may not know how to love another man. Blending the private man with the single gay dad reality, the strong detective with the emotionally vulnerable sufferer of chronic PTSD, Round creates a very credible character, who is not simply a puppet on a writer’s strings. Dan is, of course, is a sober character who is only occasionally reckless; flamboyant ambiguity enters through Ren and Ling. And mystery suspense builds and holds till the inevitable denouement where the reader discovers how Dan has been unwittingly exploited by CSIS, the real relationship between Ren and Ling, and the real significance of the jade butterfly.