It wasn’t too long ago that I had never consciously read any book that qualified as a mystery. Feeling like I was probably missing out, and that as a librarian-in-training I should figure out what it is that mystery readers get out of these books that they so enthusiastically devour, I read a few (an Agatha Christie and a Walter Mosley) earlier this year and did a school project on the genre. (I even wrote a Book Riot post about the whole experience). This fall, then, I felt qualified / prepared to read the Canadian lesbian mystery series by Liz Bugg that had been on my to-read list forever.
The first book in the series is Red Rover. Unfortunately as you can see the cover is really dark and the resolution on the image is terrible, which is too bad; the covers for the second and third books—Oranges and Lemons and Yellow Vengeance—are much brighter and fitting for the colour-coded titles. Despite the less-than-appealing cover, though, Red Rover is a solid introduction to this Toronto-set lesbian private investigator series.
The PI in question is Calli Barnow, a nearing-middle-aged white butch dyke who normally takes cases like hunting down dogs kidnapped by a distraught, recently-separated spouses fighting over their fur babies. The new case that Red Rover opens with, though, is a doozy: the missing daughter of a local rich, conservative tycoon. Tempted by the money, as well as the fact that the father has begrudgingly chosen Calli for the job because his daughter is queer like her, she accepts the case. Tracking down what has happened to Thalia, the young missing woman, is going to be tricky, because she might not be missing at all; she could just be avoiding her homophobic family. Calli’s search takes her all over Toronto and in and out of LGBTQ establishments and communities.
If you’re looking for a book that feels very Toronto, and very queer, Red Rover is for you. The whole story is centred around hotspots of Toronto queer life, with the familiar drag queen and dyke drama. Dewey, Calli’s unofficial second-in-command, is an up-and-coming drag queen and he usually steals any scene that he’s in. I’ve only spent a bit of time in Toronto, but it definitely felt like a slice of that Church street (the gaybourhood) life, as well as other areas you might know, like Kensington Market. It reminded me of the days when I was watching Queer as Folk. I also appreciated that the racial and ethnic diversity of the queer community was represented: Dewey’s Black, and Calli’s femme partner Jess is Chinese-Canadian (although you only meet her right at the very end). You can tell this is a novel written by an insider who knows the community. It’s the kind of book that’s written for queer readers, not merely about queer people, and that is a special treat for sure.
If you’re looking for a tight mystery to intellectually challenge you, though, Red Rover is probably not the best choice. I’m notoriously bad at this kind of thing—both Christie and Mosley’s convoluted plots boggled me and made me feel like I just wasn’t quite smart enough for them—and I figured out who the “bad guy” was pretty early on in the narrative. If you’re under 50, you’ll probably also roll your eyes like I did at Bugg’s dialogue for a few characters in their late teens / early twenties, which sounded like bad hip hop lyrics instead of how young white Torontonians talk.
All in all, this is a solid first book for a lesbian mystery series, and I’m definitely interested in continuing with it. I’d like to end with a quotation from what I’m pretty sure is a well-meaning but misinformed snippet from a Goodreads review of Red Rover: “This author gets high marks for having characters who follow the Gay/Lesbian lifestyle without letting the lifestyle dominate the plot.” Ha ha. If you’ve read this book and any others in the series, let me know what you thought of them in the comments. I’ll be over here following the bisexual lifestyle.