Sometimes a book sells you with a single line. Special agent Bradford Fairfax utters his on page 48, musing about the nature of camp. “Noël Coward is camp too,” Fairfax thinks, “but most especially when he thinks he’s being sentimental.”
In this second Fairfax mystery Toronto novelist Jeffrey Round conjures this brilliant insight at an odd moment. Fairfax is zipping along a coast in Key West following a lead about a missing person.
What has this seemingly out-of-place aside to do with solving a murder? Everything, it turns out. Camp, colourful characters and an artistic sensibility doll up this drag queen of a mystery. Death in Key West belts out a tale of broken hearts, heinous crime, quick quips, sensible heroes and unpredictable villains.
Fairfax works for Box 77, a rogue intelligence group. He is vacationing with his boyfriend Zach in Key West during New Year’s Eve celebrations that are part of a massive gay street party. Death in Key West has a similar sensibility, crammed with colourful characters, including a purported crossdressing ghost in a flapper dress.
Round establishes his ensemble well before kicking the story in the behind.
Nobody dies until a significant 76-page chunk has unfolded. Only then does the real mystery start with the murder of the Twisted Sisters, a group of local drag queens. From there, the deaths tally up.
James Quentin Ashley Vanderbilt III, heir to a sizeable fortune and possessor of a singular operatic talent, is central to the whodunit. Lurking in the background are his omniscient father Frank Robertson and brother Andrew, a Republican senatorial candidate eyeing the presidency.
Plot aside, the patter of cheesy, often riotous lines makes for page-turning fun. When Fairfax enters a nightclub called the Pussy Palace, for example, the completely pink interior creeps him out. He thinks, “It was like being swallowed alive by a giant vulva, and without a lifesaver.” In another scene the special agent leaves the women’s change room and goes to the men’s: “Brad slipped out of Jane and headed toward Dick.”
The other characters are likewise randy, including the constantly cooing Allie, manager of the nude resort, and Officer Streeter, the flirtatious, GQ-good-looks policeman. Despite detailed descriptions of certain characters’ endowments, this breezily-toned mystery largely depicts sex off screen.
It feels like a game of Clue with drag queens, thugs and crocodiles. A weakness of this game, though, is the too conveniently timed dispatching of certain henchmen.
Fairfax is smart and dashing. Round wisely eschews the über-macho “realistic” James Bond flicks, opting for a more classic hero who relies on his wits and intelligence, but also on help from others. At times his boyfriend Zach plays Margo Lane to the special agent’s Shadow. At such moments Zach is the brains of the operation, divining the future using candles, interjecting invaluable trivia about coral snake venom and asking questions that lead Fairfax to the murderer.
And what potential murderers step onto Round’s stage! The plot twists come faster and more furiously toward the end, bedecked with red herrings. A rather hilarious confrontation scene depicts Fairfax deflecting flung blades with kitchenware as he trades quips with the antagonist.
Plentiful operatic references and a literary sensibility shine up this tale. You can tell that Round had fun writing Death in Key West. Readers will have fun too.