Jeffrey Round is something of a literary jack-of-all-trades.
Originally from Sudbury and now living in Toronto, he wrote poetry as a teen and came to novel writing as an adult. His first book, A Cage of Bones, follows the exploits of a young Canadian man who is thrust into the world of Italian modelling, becoming romantically involved with a political activist along the way. He is also the author of The Honey Locust, a critically acclaimed novel about the events of the Bosnian war. Round has worked in the theatre as a director and playwright and was the founder of the Church-Wellesley Review, Toronto’s first print journal of LGBT creative writing.
He had difficulty at first finding a Canadian publisher for his books, in part because they were seen as “gay novels” and publishers didn’t feel they had much market potential. A Cage of Bones was published by a British press, and The P’Town Murders, first in the Bradford Fairfax mystery series, by an American one. He did eventually pique the interest of Canadian publishers, however, with Cormorant Books publishing The Honey Locust and Dundurn Press putting out his Dan Sharp mystery series, beginning with Lake on the Mountain (which won a Lambda award in 2013).
“When I was a kid, I was incredibly fond of the series books — the Hardy Boys, the Nancy Drew, and even the Bobbsey Twins . . . I couldn’t get enough of them,” Round says. He studied literature at Dalhousie Univeristy and came to mystery at the height of his frustrations with the publishing world. An incident with a peeping tom while in a friend’s Jacuzzi gave him the idea for a comic mystery novel, and thus Bradford Fairfax was born. Used to working on books for years at a time, Round discovered that he could write mystery novels in a fraction of that time and that the market for those books was much hungrier.
“What I did learn was that I really enjoyed writing lighter works,” he says. “Up until then I hadn’t really accessed that part of my personality.” Vanished in Vallarta is the third installment in the Bradford Fairfax series, following The P’Town Murders and Death in Key West. The novel finds our hero, who works as a top-secret agent for the mysterious Box 77, on assignment in Puerto Vallarta. His mission is to preserve world peace by preventing the kidnapping of a famous Canadian chanteuse, a feat he’ll accomplish no matter how many cocktails it takes.
Round says he envisions a total of eight books in the series and already has a fourth installment penned. “They just come to me so easily, and I enjoy them so much I just can’t resist them,” he says. But it’s not all lightness and mirth; the Dan Sharp series, of which the newly released Pumpkin Eater is the second installment of a planned trilogy, takes a decidedly darker tone.
“Usually, I focus in on one book, but I don’t finish it,” Round says of his writing style. “Then I will move to another, and while I’m on that other I’ll get ideas for the one that I’ve just put aside . . . because I enjoy the writing so much I prefer to do it when it comes to me rather than when I have to chase it.”
Pumpkin Eater begins with our hero searching for a missing person in an abandoned Toronto pork warehouse in the middle of the night. What he finds is disturbing and sets off a chain of events leading to a serial killer. “Dan is kind of a composite of the darker sides of me and some of the kids that I grew up with in Sudbury,” Round says. “There’s a lot of darkness that propels him.” Dan Sharp is the result of a troubled childhood, snippets of which are hinted at throughout the book; his mother died when he was four years old, and his father was negligent and abusive. Round says this reflects an all-too-common scenario among families in Sudbury when he was growing up.
Sharp is also the father of a teenage boy, the result of a short-lived liaison with a woman in his youth. “A lot of those choices were made for me,” Round says. “They just came from my intuitive sense of ‘Follow this character in this direction.’” Fairfax, on the other hand, is a decidedly lighter character. “Brad is my giddy self,” Round says. “That comes out of me when I’m on a vacation somewhere . . . where I’m just being lighthearted and looking for the next martini bar or the next flop-down on the beach or whatever it may be.”
Vanished in Vallarta is a lighthearted read; the characters hop from the beach to the bar, enjoying all the partying and libations Puerto Vallarta’s gay scene has to offer. They’re a colourful bunch, from the spirit-channelling drag queen Esmeralda to Jarod, an aging, skincare-obsessed twink who might be more than he appears, to a pair of look-alike Brazilian lovers with surly dispositions and a penchant for PDA. Also on the colourful side, quite literally, is Brad’s blue-haired boyfriend Zach, an agent-in-training with an affinity for new-age mystique (a running theme in the Fairfax books).
For his part, Round tries not to pigeonhole himself as a writer of any particular genre. “I think good writing is good writing. It holds your attention or, conversely, it doesn’t,” he says. “To me everything is a genre, so there’s no sense saying, ‘Okay, there’s literature and then there’s everything else’ . . . we deny ourselves great pleasure and also great learning if we look at these books and say, ‘This is lesser than this.’”
Nowhere does this ring truer than in his two latest releases, each a different side of the mystery-novel coin and each with its story to tell.