Blackmail, My Love: A Murder Mystery by Katie Gilmartin
Paperback: 232 pages
Publisher: Cleis Press; proof edition (November 18, 2014)
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Josie O'Conner travels to San Francisco in 1951 to locate her gay brother, a private dick investigating a blackmail ring targeting lesbians and gay men. Jimmy's friends claim that just before he disappeared he became a rat, informing the cops on the bar community. Josie adopts Jimmy's trousers and wingtips, battling to clear his name, halt the blackmailers, and exact justice for the many queer corpses. Along the way she rubs shoulders with a sultry chanteuse running a dyke tavern called Pandora's Box, gets intimate with a red-headed madam operating a brothel from the Police Personnel Department, and conspires with the star of Finocchio's, a dive so disreputable it's off limits to servicemen — so every man in uniform pays a visit.
Blackmail, My Love is an illustrated murder mystery deeply steeped in San Francisco's queer history. Established academic and first-time novelist Katie Gilmartin's diverse set of characters negotiate the risks of same-sex desire in a tough time for queers. Humor leavens the grave subject matter. Set in such legendary locations as the Black Cat Cafe, the Fillmore, the Beat movement's North Beach, and the sexually complex Tenderloin, Blackmail, My Love is a singular, visually stunning neo-noir experience.
Excerpt from Blackmail, My Love: a murder mystery
When I turned down the alley the crowds vanished, the side- walk crumbled, and streetlights gave way to furtive shadows. A blunt, dead-end passage broke off to the right, and I saw the entrance just beyond it. Pandora’s Box. Advertised by a dim seam of light seeping through the edges of its doorway. I pushed open the door.
The place was crowded but motionless as a plastic nativity scene. All eyes were locked on a body on the bar, a slim figure in a striped, cream-colored suit, hips slowly gyrating as she sang, “According to the Kinsey Report, every average man you know”—her hips reversed direction—“much prefers his lovey-dovey to court when the temperature is low—.” Dipping on that last word, her voice climbed with the temperature to “sizzling hot.” She offered a low growl as Mr. Pants forwent romance, then rose to strut the chorus.
Her voice could coax you into believing in your wildest dreams. She strode the length of the bar as Cole Porter cooed and wooed, fell to her knees to plead, “Sister, you’ll fight my baby tonight,” then rose with shimmy and shake. Rounding on the finale, she distilled every drop of innuendo from “the marine, for his queen,” then paused, a silence to gather force. Her head snapped back like the cover of a lighter and she wailed, “too...darn...hot” as though she’d never need to do anything again. When the applause came she hopped nimbly off the back of the bar and began pulling beers. The frozen tableau became a roiling crowd, lifting drinks, lighting cigarettes, carousing.
When I got through to the bar she was wiping it down with a dishrag that hadn’t been washed since before the war. Her dark hair, slightly damp, was swept into a loose chignon at the base of her neck. I asked for a ginger ale. She served it with a maraschino cherry and a sly smile. “A buzz cut takes five years off a girl,” she said with a grin, and turned to her next customer.
I retreated to the only available barstool. Beside me was a severe butch whose greased hair met in a precise duck’s ass above the nape of the neck. The femme on her far side wore a vermilion halter dress elegantly set off by her dark-brown skin. The way she filled out that halter ensured that the D.A. was all I’d see of the butch that evening. On my other side was a stout older femme.
“Who’s she?” I asked, gesturing toward the bartender.
“That’s Lily Wu. She owns the place, along with Madge Collins.”
“She sure can sing.”
“Livelies up the place, don’t she? Oh, that’s Madge there.”
Lily was joined by a dark-haired butch with a dour expression: Rosie the Riveter gone bad. She and Lily exchanged a few words, then Lily flipped up a segment of the bar, stepped through, and headed toward the back door. I followed.
She was leaning with her shoulders against the wall, one heel against the brick, lighting a cigarette. The flame flared as I arrived.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Mi alley es su alley. I’m Lily.”
“Josephine—Joe,” I replied as I leaned against the building beside
her. The space was narrow and our bodies touched lightly along the shoulders. She warned, with a slight tease in her voice, “Anyone catches us like this, they’ll be calling us kiki.”
“Would you care?”
She looked over to see how serious I was, then looked ahead again, across the alley, considering. “No.”
Silence for a while, till she asked, “You don’t go for femmes?”
“I do, sometimes. If there’s something butch about them.”
She laughed, a low rumble. “How about butches?”
“Same thing. The ones that have something soft about them, something vulnerable they’re not afraid to show. Say, the butch suit with the soft sweeping hair. The femme with the fuck-you attitude and solid stance. I’ve even—” I paused to consider whether this revelation was wise, and proceeded anyway: “I’ve even fallen for a drag queen.”
“Hm,” she commented, curious. “Did it go anywhere?”
My turn to laugh. “No. But it sure was educational. Never knew there were so many uses for tape. Kind of makes me a queer queer, if you know what I mean.”
“I’ve got some idea of that,” she said.
“I hear this place is yours.”
“Mine and Madge’s.”
“If you can sing like that, why do you bartend?”
She blew out smoke and looked at me skeptically, as though gauging
her answer. “Coupla reasons. I’ve heard ‘This is a gay bar, not a chink bar’ too many times. And I got tired of being the Dragon Lady.”
“Who’s the Dragon Lady?”
“Red satin dress, tight, stops just below the knees, but slit up to here. High collar with diagonal buttons running to there. Narrow bow lips, bloodred. Controlling, manipulative, deceitful.” She tilted her head, as if considering. “Actually, it was fun for about a minute, as a stage persona. I camped it up. But it got tired quick. I’d introduce myself as Miss Vera Scrutable,” she continued, her voice caustic, “but nobody in those audiences got it. The only other option was a China Doll. Delicate maiden, mysterious instead of inscrutable. Things were better in the Fillmore, at places like Bop City and the Blue Mirror. But I can see which way the winds are blowing. They don’t like neighborhoods where the nationalities mix. And the Negroes prosper.” She scowled. “They’re tearing it down. ‘Urban renewal,’ they call it. Renewing their wallets is more like it.”
“So you opened your own bar to have a place to perform?”
“Madge had been talking about it for a while. Only way either of us could bartend: females have to own at least a third of a bar in this town to tend it. They assume we’re chippies otherwise, would slip a mickey into every john’s drink and roll him. Then when the law changed—you know about that?” I shook my head. “Friend of mine, Sol Stouman, owner of the Black Cat, they tried to shut him down. He took the case all the way to the California Supreme Court. They ruled that cops can’t bust bars just for having homosexuals in them. So now it’s harder for the cops to lean on us. They used to be able to raid us whenever they felt like it. ‘It’s Wednesday and my shiny black copper shoes are fittin’ too tight? Let’s go bust some queers.’ They can still do it, of course,” she added, her voice thick with anger. “Just have to work a little harder at it. Anyway, Madge and I decided it was time.”
“So now you sing whatever you want, whenever you want.”
“Not quite. We need a cabaret license for that, and haven’t managed to pull one yet. They don’t like to give them to female bar owners, much less females with eyes like mine. But eventually we’ll get it. In the meanwhile I do numbers on the bar. Now and then, no regular schedule, so as not to make it too easy for them to bust us.” She turned toward me. “You’re new in town.”
“What brought you here?”
“My brother. He’s missing. As of about a month ago.” “Maybe I know him. What’s his name?”
“James O’Conner. He went by Jimmy.”
She turned sharply. “Jimmy O’Conner?”
Excerpt from Blackmail, My Love: a murder mystery. Written and illustrated by Katie Gilmartin, published by Cleis Press
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