Brad Shreve [00:00:00]:
This is queer. We are. I’m Brad Shreve, and I interview LGBTQ guests who are making a difference, staying optimistic and spreading good news. Their stories will inspire you to anticipate hope for our future, to motivate you to keep moving forward, whatever moving forward means to you.
My guest this week, Richard Lipez inspired me for years, most known by his pseudonym, Richard Stevenson. You may know him for his 18 Donald Strachey mystery novels, or from the four movies based on the novel starring Chad Allen as Strachey. If you don’t know him. Don’t miss this opportunity. The first novel, Strachey novel, published in 1981, and the last was published earlier this year, 2023. What’s exciting about the series is it’s not only damn good, but Richard also captured gay history through Strachey, though that was not his intent. The man was writing stories.
As happens in fiction, Donald Strachey doesn’t age much over the course of 42 years. But the world has changed, and so has Strachey. He grows with the times and matures. The first novel in the series, Death Trick, is the only one published before the AIDS crisis. Donald and his partner Timmy have a loving relationship, but it is not monogamous. In fact, Strachey has no qualms with having sex with someone to help solve his case. Timmy was not necessarily as thrilled with this. The second novel was published in 1984. AIDS was on everyone’s mind, and monogamy between Donald and Timmy became a bigger argument. Fast forward to book number 17, Killer Reunion, which published in 2019. The murder came after a family squabble between Trump supporters and Trump haters. And Donald and Timmy are a settled married couple. Well, as settled as one can be with Donald Strachey. Politics and social issues and trends populate all the books in between.
Chasing Rembrandt, published by ReQueered Tales, is the novel published earlier this year. It’s the 18th in the series, and sadly, the last. Richard Stevenson didn’t live to see its release. Now, yes, there’s a relationship, but it’s not a romance series. These are hard boiled mysteries. Though Richard’s goal was to make Donald more fun than other dark and brooding PIs, he succeeded. This episode was recorded in August 2020, when he was a guest on my prior podcast, Queer Writers of Crime. I was thrilled, and I’m glad to say we stayed in touch as one of my idols. I was ecstatic when he told me how much he enjoyed my first novels, and when he emailed me at the end of 2021, he sounded like a little kid. He was excited to be launching a new series at his age. The first and only novel in that series, Knockoff the Hat, published a month after he died. Richard Stevenson was going to come back as my guest on that podcast of May of last year, a month before he asked if we could put it off a little bit because he was being treated for cancer. It was his husband Joe, who emailed me back to say the interview must be put off for another time because Richard was struggling. Richard Stevenson Lepez died in March of 2022. As I said, this was recorded for the Queer Writers of Crime podcast. This is me, Brad Shreve, and you’ll hear about my guest. I’ve been speaking about Richard Stevenson, so hang on, because queer we are.
Your bio is fascinating, but we’re not going to talk about you right away. We’re going to start off with the man himself, Donald Strachey. The latest Strachey novel, Killer Reunion, is the 16th in the series. Tell us about him. Who is Donald Strachey?
Richard Stevenson [00:03:56]:
He’s somebody who sprung into my hot little brain in 1979 and 80 when I thought that there was a need for a gay mystery private eye who was going to be in tune with the zeitgeist of the late 70s, which was gay liberation, political liberation and a rejection of the way in particular in which gay people had been portrayed in fiction and especially genre fiction and particularly mysteries up to that point, which was that we were always pathetic victims and often were expected to commit suicide if we weren’t murdered. And we were a pretty sorry lot in mysteries up until that time, except, of course, for Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandsteader mysteries, which really broke that old mold. But his were pretty solemn, and I wanted to create a character that was more reflective of the high spirits of the late seventy s and early eighty s. And so I made up Strachey. Basically, I read Gregory McDonald, where I got some of the likeness of the social comedy, and I read Raymond Chandler. If you read Death Trick, the first novel in the Strachey series, you’ll see that the opening scene, as a friend pointed out I didn’t even realize it at the time, is almost a plagiarism of the opening scene of The Big Sleep. So Strachey served that purpose in gay lit for me, and also he was a kind of alter ego for me and lived a life that I like to fantasize about when I was writing the books.
Brad Shreve [00:05:54]:
You mentioned to me that you have a plan for a Pandemic area straight novel to release next year.
Richard Stevenson [00:06:02]:
That’s the plan.
Brad Shreve [00:06:05]:
That’s the plan. I know how that goes.
Richard Stevenson [00:06:07]:
Brad Shreve [00:06:10]:
The reason I brought it up is next year is the 40th anniversary of the series. I’m curious about the timeline over those 40 years. How much time has passed in Strachey’s life?
Richard Stevenson [00:06:20]:
Well, not very much. A number of readers have pointed this out. I made him my age when the book came out, which was a little past 40, and the idea was that Strachey and his boyfriend from the very beginning, Timothy Callahan, would age at the same rate that I aged. But my editor at St. Martin’s at the time, Michael Dennety, was very clear. He said, no, your readers are not going to want to read about some old fart detective. And so you can’t age these guys. So I didn’t. And in the most recent book, Killer Reunion, there’s just a passing mention that almost 40 years later, they’re only in their mid 50s. So eventually I think I will. I’m 81 myself, and I know what aging looks like. I’ve been pretty lucky so far. But there’s always next week. And I think eventually I will have them have my characters face some of the difficulties and pleasures of aging. But for the moment, they’re still in their sprightly. Mid 50s.
Brad Shreve [00:07:33]:
You made it a little more real than Sue Grafton did her whole series, A through Y, Kinsey Milhone or Millhorn. I can never remember her name exactly.
Richard Stevenson [00:07:43]:
Brad Shreve [00:07:44]:
Her character only aged like, I think, three years over that whole period. I know that’s a lot of detective work in a very short amount of time.
Richard Stevenson [00:07:54]:
It sure is. I haven’t quite managed to come up with that much chutzpah as a writer.
Brad Shreve [00:08:03]:
You know those times when you and a friend or family member are trying to find something on Netflix and instead of watching your flip, flip, flip, flip, looking at one movie after another, well, sometimes your decision comes down to the reviews, and the same thing happens to podcasting. So for those that are searching madly for a new podcast, help them make the decision and leave a review. For Queer, we are on Apple Podcast or wherever you’re listening to this show.
In 1981, when Death Trick came out, donald and his partner, Timothy Callahan I found this very interesting when I read the novel, that they aren’t strictly monogamous, which some readers were surprised of. I’ve read in some of the views, but I believe it was true to the era. How has their relationship changed and developed over that time?
Richard Stevenson [00:08:52]:
They did, as couples struggle over the whole question of monogamy or not in the early books, and then later on, as they became more secure with each other, it just wasn’t an issue anymore. There wasn’t much that went on outside the relationship. Although in one of the books, the $38 Million Smile, which is set in Thailand, there’s some really interesting scenes where they visit a gay bathhouse in Bangkok. But for the most part, as they have aged into their 50s, it just isn’t a big deal anymore. It just doesn’t come up as an issue. It’s one of those issues that every gay couple thinks about, talks about, and has rules about, and they’ve managed to work it out very comfortably over the years. It’s just not a big deal.
Brad Shreve [00:09:50]:
Donald and Timothy spent some time in Bangkok, and I know you and Joe frequently go to Bangkok. Is it every year that you go?
Richard Stevenson [00:09:58]:
We have gone every year, almost every year for the last 14 years, for two or three or four months. And we have friends there, and we love Thailand and love bangkok just one of the most wonderful places in the world. And it looks as though we won’t be going this coming winter because of the virus. First of all, the ties, I’m sure, will not let us in. They are not letting anybody in and Americans in particular practically lepers in the world now because of the way the virus has been mishandled here. So I think we won’t be going this year but I hope we’ll be able to go the following year. It’s a great place to be. gay. Thais are pretty comfortable with it. There are some old Chinese Thai families that are more conservative. But by and large the Thai is pretty easy going. People in most areas of life, the society works. People get their work done but they have a belief in the importance of “Sanok” is the Thai word which means fun, but it doesn’t mean just fun, but it means get up in the morning and do what you need to do and enjoy it as thoroughly as possible with other people. That’s what draws us there. Plus, of course, the climate in the winter. The New England winters are not so great, as some of your listeners will know.
Brad Shreve [00:11:32]:
I grew up in Michigan. I remember them well. And I’m very glad to be in Los Angeles.
Richard Stevenson [00:11:38]:
Brad Shreve [00:11:39]:
Well, we’re going to talk more about you, Richard but I wanted to bring up that you’ve had the honor of being a writer of gay fiction who’s had stories were adapted for film on Here TV. It was four of the Donald Strachey novels, is that correct?
Richard Stevenson [00:11:52]:
That’s right. Four of them were filmed. This was about eight to ten years ago and they’re available. You could come up and get hold of them or even find them. On Here TV is the entity on which they appeared. It’s a rather small, limited, obscure cable channel that doesn’t appear on many systems. And they did four. They did. Third man out. Ice Blues, Shock to the System and one other one whose name escapes me. And it was a mixed experience for me. The great Lawrence Block said that when any of your books are filmed you can’t really expect them, once they appear on the screen, to be your book. The whole vocabulary, the whole structure, the whole way of putting a narrative together is just too different. But what you can hope for is that they will be any good. And of the four that were done, I would say one was good enough and two were not good at all. And one I have not looked at Ice Blues. It’s one of my favorite books in the series. And some friends said, don’t look. It’s just so awful. And other friends said, oh, it’s really the best of the four. So I’m torn about that. The one thing I will say is that even though the scripts were awful, I had nothing to do with it. They kept me at a long arm’s length. Scripts were awful, and a lot of other things were awful. They looked as though they’d been made for about a $1.85 or something. But Chad Allen as Strachey was really just perfect. He’s not the Strachey in my head, but he’s a kind of now alternative Strachey that I sometimes see in my head when I’m writing, because he was so good and brought such talent and humanity and intelligence to the role. So I was lucky that that happened. I didn’t make much money. They were a bunch of cheapskates, that company, but it sold some books. It introduced the books to a whole new generation of readers. And overall, I’m glad it happened.
Brad Shreve [00:14:14]:
Yeah. Lawrence Block, who is one of my absolute favorite mystery writers, his character, Bernie Rhodenbarr in the Burglary series, was made into a movie called Burglar, and they changed Bernie into Bernice, and it starred Whoopi Goldberg. And he said, I don’t know why they did it, but I’m not a screenwriter. I don’t make movies. I write books.
Richard Stevenson [00:14:39]:
Raymond Chandler, somebody said to Raymond Chandler, isn’t it awful, Mr. Chandler, what Hollywood has done with your books? And he said, Hollywood didn’t do anything to my books. They’re right up there on the shelf. So that’s basically a good way of looking at it.
Brad Shreve [00:14:56]:
That is a good way to look at it. And I do want to let people know, and yourself know, I guess. It is on Here, TV, which is not in a lot of markets, but I also found it on YouTube, and it’s not free on YouTube. You have to pay extra for it. If anybody wants to see the movies, they’re there.
Richard Stevenson [00:15:12]:
Yeah. I would say the one to watch, if you’re going to watch any, is the first one, Third Man Out. The book, I think, is one of the best in the series. And the movie was pretty good, too. The script for that one was written by a friend, Mark Salzman, and he did a great job.
Brad Shreve [00:15:31]:
We’re going to talk more about you now. You left grad school in 1962 and worked in the Peace Corps for five years, but you said the first two years were teaching English in Ethiopia, and that was the best thing you ever did. Do tell.
Richard Stevenson [00:15:44]:
Absolutely. Oh, sure, yeah. I was in grad school at Penn State, and I always wanted to write. But you can’t just announce to the world that you’re a writer and get a job doing that. And I sort of thought I might like to teach, too. But the thing I was feeling most severely was the need to be connected to the larger world. I had volunteered for JFK when he ran for president as a college student. I went door to door and was sort of caught up in the whole idea of the United States connecting with the larger world in some useful and good way. And I wasn’t sure that I had the skills that were needed. But I went out, and the recruiter came to Penn State, and I said, do you need English teachers? And she said, oh, yes. So less than a year later, I found myself in rural Ethiopia. And it was great. It was hard, it was complicated, but it did what I wanted it to do, which was to make me feel as though I was doing something useful and at the same time contributing to my own education of the world and of the people of the world. It was terrific. And then after two years, I was very lucky to get a job back. Operating out of Peace Corps headquarters in Washington as a program evaluator, which meant I traveled around the world throughout Africa and Asia, peering over the shoulders of other Peace Corps volunteers to see what they were doing and how. They were doing and what they thought about what they were doing and then trying to find ways to improve the programming and recruiting and training and so forth. So that was my formal education I do value. I had some wonderful teachers over the years, but my Peace Corps experience was my greatest education. And I gave Timmy in the strachey books a Peace Corps background. He was in the Peace Corps in India, which is one of the countries that I visited when I was an evaluator. So it’s been one of the central and enduring good things in my life.
Brad Shreve [00:18:03]:
Sounds like an awesome opportunity. I’m glad you took advantage of it.
Richard Stevenson [00:18:06]:
Brad Shreve [00:18:07]:
Now it’s time for awkward questions that authors get.
Richard Stevenson [00:18:11]:
Brad Shreve [00:18:13]:
I didn’t warn you about this. What I’m going to do is I’m going to spin a wheel, and when it’s done, we’re going to get question that sometimes authors get that they can be just plain awkward. They may take us aback, and sometimes it may be downright rude.
Richard Stevenson [00:18:29]:
Rudeness. I have some experience with rudeness. I hope I don’t have to be rude back.
Brad Shreve [00:18:38]:
Oh, no, we’ll see. If you get a rude one, sit here, and I’m going to spin the wheel. Okay. Your question, I safely say, is not a rude one.
Richard Stevenson [00:18:53]:
Brad Shreve [00:18:55]:
In fact, it’s not too hard. The question is, why don’t you get a real job?
Richard Stevenson [00:19:03]:
That’s a good one. Well, the answer is too late. Now, I did have a real job. Well, my Peace Corps jobs were real jobs, and when I ran the Community Action Agency in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the late 60s, that was a real job. But since then, I’ve been lucky to have survived as a freelancer. Now I’m on Social Security, and it’s worked out okay, so too late for that. I went to a high school reunion in Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, several years ago, and one of my classmates from the class of 1956 asked me if I was retired, and I said, from what? And luckily, I don’t feel any need to retire from whatever it is I’ve been doing all these years, I still have my marbles and some energy and plan to keep at it. No real job for me.
Brad Shreve [00:20:11]:
I think many of your jobs were real jobs, including writing itself, and you’ve done that well over the years.
Richard Stevenson [00:20:18]:
Well, I’ve been lucky enough to get away with it. I arrived on the gay mystery scene at just the right time in the early 80s when there was a readership and a demand and publishers, mainstream publishers, were paying decent money. And now it’s all changed and everybody’s struggling and the market is fragmented and all that. So I really feel extremely lucky to have been there at just the right time. And my heart goes out to people who are struggling to do it now. They’re the ones that have to get real jobs.
Brad Shreve [00:20:56]:
Sorry, I’m sure you are very close to Donald Strache after all these years, but is there a reason you haven’t written another series during your career?
Richard Stevenson [00:21:05]:
Well, funny you should mention that. I actually am starting in my advanced state of secomposition, another series. I have written a Private Eye novel with a Private Eye, Clifford Waterman, set in Philadelphia in 1947, and I finished it not too long ago, and I’m now it’s sort of out there, and we’ll see what happens. I mean, out there being looked at by publishers and agents and people like that. So we’ll see how that goes. I had a gay uncle who lived in Philadelphia in that era, and he never came out to the family, and I only learned about his big gay later on. And I got very curious about his life in Philadelphia in the 1930s. And so I did a lot of research and then was impelled to write a mystery set in that time and place, partly because it just seemed like a great situation for a noirish private eye story, what with the corrupt and brutal police department and the corrupt court system and the homophobia in hiring and all the rest of it. It seemed just wanting a gay private eye to show up in that setting. And he’s not like Strachey at all, and he couldn’t be because Strachey’s head is in the late seventy s and this guy’s head really is in the late forty s, and gay people’s heads at that time were very different. So he struggles, Cliff Waterman struggles with being a rational man in an irrational, homophobic place. So I’m hopeful about that, getting out into the world coming year or so. We’ll see.
Brad Shreve [00:22:55]:
Yeah, that would definitely be interesting. Totally different feel to it. I’m sure it was a dangerous time.
Richard Stevenson [00:23:00]:
Brad Shreve [00:23:01]:
Always looking over their shoulder.
Richard Stevenson [00:23:03]:
The research was interesting. I was very lucky. A guy named Mark Stein wrote a book that came out maybe 20 – 25 years ago for Temple University Press called City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves Gay Philadelphia, 1940 to 1972, something like that. And it was full of he did interviews, so it was full of the voices of the time of people remembering what it was like, and it was so useful. And then I did other research, too, and really got into the feeling and the atmospherics of the time. So I’m hopeful about that. And it was something that I was apprehensive about starting. I thought, oh, if I start this, is it just going to sound exactly like Strachey. And it didn’t. The situation had other requirements, and I observed them. So, anyway, here’s hoping.
Brad Shreve [00:24:01]:
I look forward to it. So in Killer Reunion, donald and Timothy have to contend with a family reunion. It’s Timothy’s family, I believe, and it’s a politically outspoken relatives that they’re dealing with. Something tells me today’s political climate inspired much of that fighting in the novel.
Richard Stevenson [00:24:20]:
Well, you’re very keen. Yeah. I actually attended a family reunion in Pennsylvania, central Pennsylvania, a couple of years ago, and all the members of my family that I know of are liberal Democrats and some remote cousins that we had never been in touch with. Somebody discovered them in Cincinnati, connected with the family, and wanted to come to the reunion, and they did, and it turned out they were Trump supporters. And it was very awkward. And anyway, that got me to thinking that what if there’s a family reunion? And I think more typically, there are families that are more evenly divided. And I thought, well, what if there’s a family reunion where the Trump people and the antitrump people really get into it and there’s a murder? And is the murder really just political, or is there all family stuff going on here? Or what’s it about? And I came up with a plot, and it was great fun to write. It’s sat in a country where the family gets together in the Berkshires, where I live in western Massachusetts called Killer Reunion. And it’s the most recent book in the series, and it’s fun.
Brad Shreve [00:25:38]:
I think I’ll have a link to the book in the show notes so people can take a look at it.
Richard Stevenson [00:25:43]:
Oh, thank you.
Brad Shreve [00:25:44]:
Have you been politically active over the years?
Richard Stevenson [00:25:48]:
We have actually been serious about it, and we were deeply involved in Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition for many years, especially in the gay marriage battles in Massachusetts, which became highly politicized, and we won that. And we’ve also volunteered for John Kerry and Obama. Last year or three years ago, we went to New Hampshire for Hillary. Trump said he said, oh, there are all those illegals being bussed into New Hampshire to vote. Well, they weren’t going up there to vote. They were people like us who were going up in buses to knock on doors. So anyway, yeah. And this year we’ll do it again. Need I say more? All our lives depend on it.
Brad Shreve [00:26:35]:
It’s going to be a busy year for a lot of us, that’s for sure.
Richard Stevenson [00:26:38]:
Brad Shreve [00:26:40]:
What do you find is the hardest thing about writing.
Richard Stevenson [00:26:43]:
Oh, boy. Well, getting started. There’s that terrifying blank page when you think, oh, I don’t remember how to do this. That first page, you think, oh, it’s as though I’ve never done this before. That’s the hardest part. Once I get going, it’s not hard, but having some kind of clear or semi clear idea of how to start is the hardest part for me. You mentioned earlier that I was working on, you might even have said, a new Strachey book set in the Pandemic era. And I have to say that all I have is a bunch of little slips of notes on the backs of Dunkin Donuts receipts and things like that. It’s that time again when you have to look at the empty now computer screen and put something on it. But I think I can do it. I think I can, I think I can.
Brad Shreve [00:27:41]:
I generally don’t get into the mechanics of writing. I’m not sure all the readers are interested in that and generally comes out the same. But I am really curious with you. Do you outline?
Richard Stevenson [00:27:51]:
Very rough outline, very sketchy outline, just enough to get me going. And I might or might not stick with what I have outlined. A few times I have just sort of plunged in. I had a good first page or situation, a bunch of characters, and so I just plunged in and then rewrote as I went along. But I’ve done it various ways, and I know different writers are very meticulous in the way they do outlines, and then there are people who just meander around and then tidy up afterwards. And I’ve done it both ways, and I do whatever works at the time.
Brad Shreve [00:28:35]:
Yeah, when new writers ask me about should you outline or not, I’m like, Stephen King does not outline and JK. Rowling does. They both seem to do pretty well for themselves. So you decide for yourself.
Richard Stevenson [00:28:47]:
Yes, you do what works.
Brad Shreve [00:28:48]:
Before I let you go, I want to ask you’ve spent 40 years in the gay mystery genre. How do you view the future of the genre?
Richard Stevenson [00:28:57]:
Well, it seems to be very healthy. Everybody’s doing it. I mean, I don’t think anybody’s making much money at it these days, but with small publishers struggling along and people self publishing, and occasionally one of the mainstream publishers put something out. But it’s very rare now, but it seems very healthy. It’s kind of an embarrassment of riches, really. The only problem is, I guess, that people have to keep their day jobs. That’s a shame. Mysteries generally. The whole genre, I think, has a great future. It’s one of the genres that seems to have a sizable following through every era, through thick and thin, and there will always be gay, lesbian by queer people who want to read about people like themselves. So I’m optimistic about it happening and hope that people can find other ways to survive.
Brad Shreve [00:30:05]:
I’m glad you see a bright future in that. I do too, as well, for basically the same reasons that you gave. Thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you, Richard.
Richard Stevenson [00:30:13]:
It’s been my pleasure, Brad. And thank you. And good luck with your books. I told you I just read A Body in a Bathhouse and enjoyed it a lot and recommend it highly. It’s a good mystery. And it also, as I mentioned to you, I think of my own books as being social comedies as much as mysteries. And I thought that yours had a lot of those elements in A Body and math as did. So congratulations to you.
Brad Shreve [00:30:42]:
Well, thank you. And the $20 will be in the mail next week.
Richard Stevenson [00:30:46]:
Oh, 20 you’re earlier you said 27. 50.
Brad Shreve [00:30:51]:
Well, shipping charge.
Richard Stevenson [00:30:53]:
Brad Shreve [00:30:53]:
Richard Stevenson [00:30:55]:
Okay, thanks a lot.
Brad Shreve [00:30:56]:
Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Do yourself a favor right now. It’s quick, easy, and you won’t miss 1 second of the show, whether you’re on the phone or on the computer. Look at the app where you’re hearing me now and find the button that says follow or subscribe and click it now, you’ll be notified when a new episode publishes and you won’t miss a single one.