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Gumshoe Gorilla cover

"Did you ever see that old tv show, the one with the gorilla in a trench coat?" Of course you didn't and neither did I, since the gorilla gumshoe, Monk Malone, is only a character in a tv show invented by the fertile imagination of novelist Keith Hartman. Gumshoe Gorilla is the second novel by Hartman dealing with this particular vision of a near future USA in which various interest groups, from fundamentalist Christians to gays and lesbians to the Cherokee Nation, are at each other's throats. The Cherokee want their land back, the fundamentalists want the world to conform to their wishes, the tv moguls want ratings, the stage mothers want publicity, and the capitalists, of course, are in it for the money. What the gorilla wants is an interesting question.

Of course, the gorilla's not so much a feature in the book as a spectre, turning up in gay Private Investigator Drew Parker's dreams to make Humphrey Bogart style comments about the state of Drew's various investigations. There's also a dead transgendered Cherokee shaman with an interesting dress sense and a surviving husband who is convinced that Drew is his late wife's heir, even though the dresses are several sizes too small. And that's all before we get to the witch: Drew's Wiccan partner, Jen. One of the wicked ironies of Hartman's very funny novel is that it's really Drew who has the better connection to the world of the supernatural, despite Jen's Tarot cards, herbs, and Wiccan books.

The gumshoe gorilla may be Drew's spirit guide in the PI business and his icon for what it's like to be all alone in an alien world -- something Drew's all too familiar with, having grown up as a gay kid in a homophobic Baptist family -- but the cases Drew and Jen get called on to deal with are very much concerned with the flesh and the world. Like its predecessor, The Gumshoe, the Witch and the Virtual Corpse (1999), this novel presents a variety of first person narrations -- mostly the gumshoe and the witch, but also the rival PI, the deaf client, her clone boyfriend, the mother of the clones, the spy in the fundamentalist camp, a Cherokee extremist, and once even Monk Malone himself. It takes a deft hand to manipulate eight different points of view, but Hartman has a nice ear for voice, so the reader doesn't constantly have to be checking the chapter headings to know who's speaking.

These different voices tell a series of interlinking stories, including the two main cases Drew and Jen are trying to solve. The first of these involves a woman who's disturbed at her daughter's whirlwind romance and marriage: is the new husband really who he says he is? The second, which forms the major part of the novel's plot, involves the deaf plot coordinator for the popular TV thriller, Czechmates, who wants to know what sort of trouble her boyfriend, Charles Rockland, has gotten himself into. Rockland won't tell her himself, so -- prompted by a dream about the gumshoe gorilla -- she turns to Drew and Jen for help. The only problem is that there are five Rocklands -- all identical clones created by their publicity-mad mother using DNA from the frozen corpse of a Big Name movie star. Five indistinguishable Rockland boys may be cute, but, as Drew and Jen discover, they're hell on an investigation, especially as three of them are playing a single character on Czechmates.

At the same time, there's still spillover from the plot of the last novel, as the Baptist News Network tries to pussyfoot its way around the indictment of its charismatic leader, the Reverend-Senator Stonewall, for the on-camera murder of a popular Christian rock star. And the Cherokee Nation is still busy trying to win the land claim that had Stonewall frothing at the mouth; between the BNN and the extremists on the Cherokee side, a propaganda war of manipulated images has morphed into active sabotage. At the same time, Stonewall's fundamentalist rivals, the Christian Alliance, are conspiring to reinforce BNN's ratings plummet so as to take over the network at rock-bottom prices. And an unknown poet is programming traffic signs to display his satirical verses about the entire situation.

Meanwhile, Drew is distracted from his actual cases by his seemingly paranoid suspicions about his young friend Daniel's new boyfriend. These suspicions take him all sorts of strange places, including a vampire sex club with designer Gothic decor and real blood. Along the way, Drew even manages to rescue a very young kitten. Drew's near obsession with Daniel and Daniel's complete oblivion to Drew's feelings are very realistically portrayed, but they also serve to showcase the PI's genuine strength of character. He may have his sentimental kitten-rescuing side, but like all good PIs he's tough as nails when the going gets hard. The same can also be said of Jen, who's a lot more than a cute sidekick with a good line in psychic schtick.

Like Hartman's last novel, Gumshoe Gorilla is a genre bending mix of science fiction, hard-boiled detective novel, fantasy, and satire. The satire's occasionally overdone; while much of the novel is genuinely funny, there are a few jokes that get a little tiresome. Jen's trick with the mashed potatoes at the start of the novel was genuinely hilarious; when it was repeated, with minor variations, later on, it was strictly "been there, done that." Of course, these are the particular dangers of writing satire: the writer has to perform on the high wire of literary gymnastics, never setting a foot wrong. Hartman comes damn close to perfection, close enough to forgive him the occasional bobble.

Beyond the odd inclination to let the satire go over the top, Gumshoe Gorilla is a pretty cool extrapolation of a near future US that's close enough to our own time for the satirical knives to cut pretty deep on occasion. Hartman's main targets are fundamentalist Christians, the ones who have little difficulty overcoming their scruples about abortion if it means getting rid of fetuses that would turn into gay children. However, even gays come under scrutiny, as Drew's first case in this novel sees him investigating a gay man's financial records to make sure that he comes clean about his assets during divorce proceedings. Gay marriage has its downside, it would seem.

While most of the gay and lesbian issues in the book are background, the question of parents abandoning gay children is front and centre. Both Drew and Daniel have that particular history in common; although Daniel was a very small child at the time, Drew's personal history includes being thrown out of the family home as a fifteen year-old with no employment options aside from prostitution. Although it's central to one of the story lines, the question of familial desertion is never dealt with heavy-handedly. And Hartman's version of the near future is nicely sophisticated: he resists the temptation to depict a world that has jumped all one way or all the other. It's true that Baptists and other fundamentalists are aborting their gay children and that the government has been forced to raise a great wave of gay kids in camps, following the widespread availability of the gay blood test. But at the same time, for the majority of US society, homosexuality is just not much of an issue, gay and lesbian marriage is old history, and tv shows routinely create boutique versions of the same plotline for different interest groups.

I did have a couple of quibbles with some of the background details of the novel. Although it seems unlikely that anyone would bother genetically modifying goats to produce cat milk -- especially when a perfectly reliable cat milk replacer has been on the market for years -- that's the kind of detail any writer might invent to make their near future world a bit more solidly real. So I can accept that the technology may have changed in twenty-five years; what won't have changed are the digestive systems of infant mammals, which is why it jarred me out of the story every time Drew fed the kitten cold milk.

On a less trivial level, however, the one thing about the novel that really puzzles me revolves around the issue of the gay gene. If Drew's future USA really believes, as it seems to, that there is a genetic cause for gayness, obviously if one person is gay, then anyone with identical DNA is also going to be gay. Which raises a problem when it comes to the whole plot to make it appear that Eddie Rockland has been having an affair with a male Baptist. Because if Eddie has the gay gene, his clone brothers must have it also, which throws an interesting crimp into the solution to this particular crime.

And since Eddie is also obviously bisexual, there's a clear gap between the gay men who are identified by blood tests and men like Eddie who have sex with both men and women. The idea of finding a gene for exclusive gayness rather boggles the mind. If you presuppose, as some contemporary researchers do, that there's a single gene controlling sexuality, with heterosexuality as the dominant trait and homosexuality as the recessive, then it's hardly likely that bisexuality would escape the notice of the testers. It also seems unlikely that a behaviour as complex as human sexuality could be controlled by a set of genetic material as simple as those that made Mendel's pea flowers pink. This is a problem that's larger than Hartman's novel, but it does make one wonder whether Hartman really believes in the post-test era he's exploring or whether the entire situation is being subtly subverted by the much more complicated sexualities of the characters who inhabit the novel.

These are issues that I found myself thinking about, especially on reading Gumshoe Gorilla a second time. They certainly don't distract from the enjoyment of this fine novel, nor from the anticipation of whatever Hartman has to offer us next. Indeed, any novel that can make us think about the implications of things we take for granted, whether positively or negatively, is something to treasure. At the same time, the ongoing plotlines involving the Cherokee land claim and the court case against Stonewall mean that Hartman has quite clearly set the stage for another story featuring Drew, Jen and Daniel -- and, of course, Monk Malone, the gumshoe gorilla. And that can only be a good thing.

 

Reader Comments


Wendy Pearson is a Ph.D. student with a particular interest in SF. Her article "Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer" won the SFRA's Pioneer Award for the best critical article in 2000. She has published a number of articles on sexuality and gender issues in science fiction. Her most recent article deals with the figure of the hermaphrodite in SF novels by Melissa Scott, Stephen Leigh, and Ursula Le Guin. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.



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