In the UK during the 1930s the practice of homosexuality was forbidden by law. Those found guilty were incarcerated and ostracised from ‘decent’ society. Those suspected were often subjected to brutal and vicious physical attacks from vigilante gangs of bigots. With the period’s economic problems, and the impending threat of another World War swelling from Europe, it’s hard to imagine a less appealing time for any man to lust after another man.
The Palace of Varieties is set in the 1930s. The story follows the homoerotic adventures of Paul Lemoyne. Its author, James Lear, manages to do something that few other novels would dare attempt. The Palace of Varieties dares to make the depression gay.
The Palace of Varieties comes from Cleis Press, one of the US’s leading imprints in erotic fiction. James Lear, author of Hot Valley, The Back Passage (and several other highly acclaimed titles) takes his readers to a London variety theatre in the 1930s: the perfect setting for a risqué romp where the men are men and the women are incidental.
The Palace of Varieties is more than a well-written erotic novel. James Lear has captured the spirit of 1930s England by writing in the distinctive style of the Edwardian novel. Quickly introducing his cocksure hero, Paul Lemoyne; wrenching him from the family home in the country and thrusting him into gainful employment at the South London Palace of Varieties; Lear leads the reader backstage with a pass that is firmly stamped: ACCESS ALL AREAS.
It’s hard not to enjoy this novel. Lear’s central character, Lemoyne, narrates the events and his voice his that of a roguish uncle, sharing confidences and reminiscences over a postprandial brandy. The period setting of the story is, as previously mentioned, hostile and homophobic. Yet the story pushes this bigotry to its rightful place in the background as Lemoyne concentrates on the important things in life such as money, sex and love.
My late father worked the UK’s music halls at a time not so long after the setting of Palace of Varieties. His anecdotes about the conflicting camaraderie and cattiness of theatrical life were brought to mind as I read the interactions between Lear’s richly crafted characters. Consequently, I can’t fault this story for its feel of authenticity.
On one occasion my father asked a musician who shared his dressing room if he could borrow a comb before going on stage.
“No,” said the musician. “It’s my comb and I’m not going to lend it to you.”
“Then shove it up your arse,” my father replied tersely. He then went on stage to perform his act. When he came off stage the musician was in his dressing room, bent over, with a comb sticking out from between his buttocks.
“What the hell are you doing?” asked my father.
“You told me to shove it up my arse,” the musician explained. “What do you want me to do now?”
I mention this only because either of these real life characters could have been drawn from Lear’s Palace of Varieties.
Lemoyne’s story properly begins in the Palace of Varieties but the character springboards from there toward bigger and brasher adventures. Lemoyne works as a stage-hand, a male prostitute and a model before moving out into the world to broaden his horizons in other areas. However, the essence of Edwardian theatricality remains a mainstay of this brilliant, boy-on-boy novel.
The sex is wonderfully written with Lear treading a fine balance between the gratifying and the gratuitous. Lemoyne’s character is an affable chap, game to try anything once and anxious to do it repeatedly if it proves enjoyable or profitable. His hedonistic amble from one encounter to another makes for a compelling read that hurries the story along like a runaway steam train.
Predictably, Lemoyne is handsome and hung but I’m of the mindset that no erotic fiction (homoerotic or otherwise) would work well if the central character were ugly and equipped like an under-developed gerbil. That said, the main feature of Paul’s attractiveness is neither his good-looks nor his donkey-sized dick: it’s his charm that shines through every page. Lemoyne’s excess of personality makes the denouement of this novel a climax that has to be reached.
For anyone who enjoys their fiction when it’s fun and frantic, The Palace of Varieties will provide all the entertainment a reader needs.Editor’s note: From The Independent (3/30/2008), James Lear is the erotica pen name belonging to British author Rupert Smith
In the movie, “Noise”, a girl tells the hero that she wants him to make her come by making her do things she doesn’t want to do. It’s a very sexy moment because on the one hand, she really wants to come, but on the other hand, she doesn’t want (sort of) to do the things that will get her there. She wants him to take her some place new that involves the feel, at least, of risk. In other words, the film industry can make a major feature film that contains non-consensual sex scenes. That is because people want to have sex at times in a way that they might otherwise not have the nerve to try. It’s sexual surrender carried to the limit, which is why it’s so erotic.
We, in erotica, are stuck with weird socio-babble jargon like “sex positive,” which could mean that we are positive about sex…sex is a positive thing…we are positive that it is sex…or we are positive that we want it to be about sex, or sexy, whatever it is. That really means that in order to get along with the sexual hysteria of the Clinton Administration in the 90s, we have made a practical deal with the devil to be on the Internet. The trouble is we have also sold out the possible maturation of erotica as a literary genre that really discusses the human experience, which includes all kinds of sex.
Which brings us to The Low Road by James Lear, a novel in which the turning point of the action is the young hero’s abduction by privateers who proceed to humiliate, beat, strip, strap, fuck and piss on him in about four pages. There is nothing consensual about any of this sex, but how many pirates do you know who ask you if you want to be fucked in the ass? It’s just not a pirate thing to do. Mr. Lear is clearly unruffled about that probably thinking that we all have to learn to do things we don’t like as part of growing up like being gang raped. Hmmmm…. life is such a mystery, isn’t it?
It has to be said that the hero, a Scots nobleman, doesn’t mind any of this intimate abuse at all, except that such behavior is hitherto unfamiliar to him. In fact he is fairly kinky that way throughout the book. Then again, bathing is also not a big part of his life until he is on shipboard, and considering his tastes and habits, one does go “Ieeeeewwwwww” from time to time. Mr. Lear is having fun, I conjecture, with accelerated hyperbole in his pirate scene. And why not? What is grimmer than politically correct sex? And the answer is of course, sex positive erotica.
In the course of the hero’s sexually arduous, not-to-mention harrowing, sojourn at sea, all this degradation actually serves to—one might say—make a man out of him. One would have to have one’s tongue in one’s cheek given that the characters’ tongues have been there as well as every other conceivable location on the male body, but he does enough to yearn for cozy domesticity by the novel’s end. That’s good, because the ancestral keep is in need of redecorating by then.
The Low Road is a reasonably entertaining send up of Robert Lewis Stephenson’s, Kidnapped (sort of). That means we have a twenty-first century parody of a nineteenth century novel on a subject from the middle of the eighteenth century. To wit, the Jacobite failed attempt to re-establish the Stuart Monarchy in England in the corporeal form of James II (also James VII of Scotland). Okay, so are you still with me here? Hang on. This gets better because instead of a picaresque venture during which the hero gains maturity and enlightenment—the 18th century serio-comic novel best recognized in works like Fieldings’ Tom Jones—The Low Road is a non-stop gay romp from rump to rump where the evolution has as much to do with vamping skills as gaining a mature perspective. Oh well, it’s fun.
It is the first novel by James Lear that I have read, but I think I understand his popularity. His work sails right into being pornographic with piratical gusto from the start. It’s sort of “Yo ho ho and a gay boy’s bum! Fifteen men on queen’s hard cock!” The Low Road is a scrupulously detailed catalogue of cock sucking, butt fucking, swash buckling and some plot here and there as an extender. Hygiene is frequently absent and there is rather too much hardy laughter at ponderous innuendo.
To some extent we are invited to take The Low Road as a parody or satire of Kidnapped when in fact, by intent or default, it is a burlesque of the 18th century picaresque novel. Lear is making fun of the picaresque idea rather than Stephenson’s novel. The hero, Charles Gordon, is bold, delightfully naïve, and deliciously amiable to all—and we do mean all—males in his vicinity. What’s more, Scotland seems to be almost entirely populated by gay men in this novel. There are hets who do not “lack the imagination,” as the author says, to have sex with other men when it suits the occasion. One wonders at times how Scotland has managed to continue if every man in that society is a devotee of such pleasures. However, one is even more inclined to say to oneself, “Tut tut, that’s not the point. See, he’s bent over with his pants down again. Here we go!” And indeed the hero once has two cocks up his ass at the same time. Remarkable perhaps, but you do learn new things from living with pirates.
Interspersed with all this is a certain amount of plot that, from a literary point of view, has its ups and downs. A largely irrelevant subplot is included allowing for a lot more cock sucking and butt fucking in dank places. We do understand that Gordon has this profound loyalty to the cause of the Stuart monarchy in exile, but why is less clear. In fact his political concerns seem more born out of some murky resentment of the English like the people of the American South who cannot abide Yankees for reasons they have forgotten. Gordon is still fighting the Battle of Culloden—at which his father apparently fell—long after it was done and the Jacobite cause was lost to the Scots. However, he seems hardly to have known this father.
What we have here is a picaresque journey to a particular sort of gay manhood. It is given weight and force by his tendency to learn the skills of the supposed gay subculture of the 18th Century. That’s a tricky notion given that Lear depicts this as a cultural constant through all levels of Scottish and British society. I suspect such practices were freely undertaken only among the very rich and the very rural, and even then only in secret. That is not to say that there were not gay people having relationships, but roving bands of gay men indulging in gangbangs of young nobility seems a bit far fetched for the time.
If you have the sort of credulity that is easily elasticized, The Low Road is an enjoyable work that conjures the notion of an operetta in drag with arias to rimming and synchronized ass-fucking. It is certainly that more than an adventure novel, as Kidnapped was intended. What it does very well is show that we have to get over our anal retentive fetishes about what sort of sex is appropriate for erotic fiction. More importantly we have to realize that sex is sex and it can be transformative in all sorts of ways, regardless of who is doing what to whom and what either gets out of it. That is a reasonable basis for fiction, which Mr. Lear has achieved here.
[Editor's note: The Low Road is a Finalist for the 2009 Lambda Literary Award in Gay Erotica.]
In this hilarious erotic murder mystery set in the 1920s, Edward "Mitch" Mitchell, medical doctor and amateur sleuth, rides a fast train from Edinburgh to London to visit an old "friend" (ahem). Despite the highly illegal status of homosexuality at the time, Mitch finds plenty of willing men on the train. He rescues Bertrand, a Belgian youth in distress who has a charming accent and no ticket. After Bertrand has gratefully offered his favors to Mitch, both men meet Sir Francis, who prefers to be called “Frankie,” an aristocratic poof in the entourage of two stars of the silent screen.
Later, Mitch discusses Frankie with Bertrand:
’Charming. And generous too. He offered you a job.’
‘That, we shall see.’
‘And I think he would like to fuck you, too.’
‘Also that, we shall see.’
‘Ever had two men at the same time, Bertrand? Up that neat little ass?’
‘Oh, Mitch,’ he said, in a way that could easily have meant yes or no.’
Being under constant threat of illicit invasion was never this sexy.
This thick novel is full of references to straighter (in every sense) mysteries. Writer and editor Richard Labonte calls it “a send-up of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.” Bertrand’s amusing accent resembles that of Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Although Mitch is an American living in Scotland with a local lover, he is more reminiscent of the English amateur detectives Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey than of their hardboiled American counterparts.
The eccentricity or campiness of characters in earlier English mysteries has been translated by James Lear into evidence of gayness. In the world of this novel, there isn’t a man who couldn’t be seduced by another man. Lesbianism seems to exist on a completely different planet, and the only evidence of heterosexuality is the presence of several children fathered by married men who sneak away from their wives for a taste of cock whenever possible.
The author’s presentation of this world could easily have seemed insulting to the reader, but it doesn’t. The author’s witty manipulation of the conventions of the porn novel and those of the murder mystery lets the reader in on the joke.
Like the surrealistic world of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, this world has its own logic. How likely is it that every man on the train, including the engineer and the stoker, would have an irresistible desire for other men? To those who have recently “come out” into a sexual community which is largely hidden from the social “mainstream,” potential fellow-travelers seem to appear everywhere. How likely is it that bum-fucking (with and without lubrication) would be almost universal? Those who prefer certain sexual activities often assume that anyone who won’t openly admit having the same taste is an innocent who needs to be educated.
The general atmosphere of lust is parallel to the general atmosphere of suspicion. Just as every man on the train has a sexual interest in the other men, every person has a motive to kill the unfortunate victim or to frame someone else for his murder.
Blackmail (described this way in this novel – the current legal term is “extortion”) abounds in a culture in which widespread sexual activities are both unspeakable in polite company and illegal. However, it is not always easy to guess who is the paying victim and who is the financial exploiter. Blackmail, like any addiction, requires more cash than the victim is likely to earn from a legitimate job, hence it usually leads to other illegal activities.
As in any good thriller, the web of corruption is much wider than it first appears. As Mitch discovers, the case involves the movie business, the Royal Family and the British Fascist Party, represented on the train by old Lady Antonia, who snaps orders at her drab female companion, and who regards unscheduled jolts, stops and reversals as signs that British efficiency has been subverted by creeping Communism.
Lady Antonia seems as paranoid as the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, but could it really be coincidental that the train jolts to a stop more than once before the body is found in a lavatory? And why does the train need to reverse into a tunnel after being stopped in a tunnel, in total darkness? And why does one of the male passengers emerge from the darkness smelling of lemons instead of semen?
The murder in a murder mystery is usually just the catalyst for an investigation, but this one also appeals to the reader’s compassion. The man who is killed on the train is really just a pawn for those on the trail of secrets that the powerful want permanently buried, and he leaves a distraught lover behind.
Mitch applies both logic and intuition to the evidence he has, and he must keep discarding earlier theories as new evidence comes to light. When the train arrives in London after several hours’ delay, Mitch despairs of finding a thread through the maze once all the other passengers have scattered. As it turns out, there is much to discover in London, including a seedy and secretive “men’s club,” where orgies take place and inconvenient witnesses may be held and used against their will.
The fledgling movie business of the time is a successor to the disreputable stage, but the intrepid Mitch doesn’t hesitate to visit the office of the British-American Film company, where he finds himself surrounded by aspiring actors:
The waiting room was full, both of people and of smoke. Three young women and four young men were reading magazines and sharing cigarettes; as soon as I appeared in the doorway, the stream of gossip stopped and seven pairs of eyes were fixed on me. Four of those pairs were heavily outlined in kohl, at least three heads of hair had been bleached and hennaed, and it was impossible to discern who was wearing which scent, as the room was heavy with the stuff.
Mitch learns that the only way to get past the waiting room is to audition for a “blue movie,” the studio’s bread-and-butter compensation for more expensive “mainstream” flops. Mitch discovers less about those involved in the murder than he hoped, but he thoroughly enjoys the temporary role of a male-on-male porn star.
After wrapping up the mystery and bringing the villains to justice, Mitch advises his (ahem) “friend” from Cambridge to avoid trouble by staying in the closet. Mitch himself thinks: “This time tomorrow, barring any further adventures on the train home, we [Mitch and his live-in lover] would be reunited.” In the meanwhile, however, Mitch and his “friend” lock eyes, and Mitch’s cock rises again.The novel thus ends with a promise that Mitch will continue to have adventures of various kinds, potentially for the rest of the author’s life. Mitch first appeared in a previous novel, The Back Passage, and the series could continue in volume after volume. For readers who like a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a hot, dark, intimate enclosure, these books contain the right amount of suspense and satisfaction.