Arts & Entertainment
2 min

A shock to savour

Locally shot whodunit serves up some gay twists

PRIVATE DICKS: Vancouver's own Nelson Wong (left) as Kenny Kwon with pistol-packing Chad Allen as PI Donald Strachey, in the Vancouver-produced queer mystery thriller, Shock to the System.

Sure, private eyes do their sleuthing in all shapes and styles. Some, like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, have extraordinary IQs. Others, like Mike Hammer and Sam Spade, have tough exteriors. And still others, like Inspector Clouseau and Ace Ventura, display unadulterated oafishness. That said, they’ve all long been united by one trait–they’re all presumed heterosexuals.

So what’s new if the PI happens to be gay?

Watching Shock to the System–the second of director Ron Oliver’s Donald Strachey Mysteries based on Richard Stevenson’s pulpy novels about a gay private eye in Albany, NY–it’s clear that, like any of his colleagues, Strachey is tough, sharp and enterprising. And he’s got dark secrets and personal demons, though in his case they’re rooted in his traumatic experiences as a gay man.

The story’s focus is subtly different, too. Shock’s topical plot–beginning with the murder of a young man who was the poster boy for a psychiatric institution that promises a total cure for homosexuality–does feature the conventional suspicious characters and false leads. But it also dedicates substantial time to Strachey’s cozy and contented domestic life and a troubling love-gone-wrong episode from his past.

Tanned and affable, director Ron Oliver, who is in Vancouver prepping his next project, explains his perspective on detective characters: “All worthy private detectives have things that eat at them, so while the whodunit part of the story is great, the real mystery is ‘who is he?’ Donald Strachey is no different in that sense.”

Describing himself as the “luckiest boy in the world” because of his creative and challenging career, Oliver’s work in the director’s chair stretches back to the late 1980s. In the beginning, he says humbly, he was completely inexperienced and able to “lie, steal, cheat, bluff and fake” his way through directing while making sure he was “surrounded by talented people.”

Oliver’s lengthy directing resume includes episodes of Nancy Drew, Lexx, The Chris Isaak Show and numerous made-for-TV movies.

Shock, his latest Strachey mystery, premiered to “laughter and tears,” Oliver says, at LA’s Outfest in July. He’s thrilled that it will see limited theatrical release in the US. With a budget of $1.3 million, it was shot over 12 days last February in Vancouver.

The first Strachey mystery, 2005’s Third Man Out, was a project that allowed Oliver to channel a long-held desire.

“I’d been trying to write or direct a gay movie forever,” he says. “When I directed an episode of Queer as Folk, I saw the personal satisfaction of telling a gay story.

“It seemed that if the story was going to be told, it had to say how hard it is to come out, how difficult it is to be gay, blah, blah, blah. But I came out at the age of six or so–the same time as The Sound of Music was in theatres–and never had any problem, so I couldn’t really speak of difficulty. Still, as a gay man and a Canadian, I did want to make a big statement film, but I had no real statement to make and nothing dramatic to say.”

When a script came along with a gay detective in the lead, Oliver saw his golden opportunity.

Oliver, originally hailing from Barrie, Ontario (though he now calls Palm Springs home), plans to introduce the world to other genre films with gay content. Another Strachey mystery is in the works and a feature telling three of his stories published in the Queer Fear anthology guarantee that queer PIs and queer vampires will soon be suddenly visible in the pop culture landscape.