Arrogant and homophobic Tony T. Tunderew, author of a muckraking bestseller, hires Dick Hardesty to look into blackmail threats he’s been receiving. When Tunderew and a male hustler die in a mysterious car crash, Dick’s investigation reveals Tunderew was working on a new book exposing an evangelical husband-and-wife team and their religious-based community for troubled teens. Is Tunderew’s death “divine intervention,” or something far more sinister?
If you’re like most people, whenever someone lobs a cliché into the conversation, you tend to mentally roll your eyes toward the ceiling and heave a sigh. I’m usually guilty of the same response unless I stop to remember how it is that clichés become clichés in the first place. In a way, clichés are a lot like fortune cookies—pretty bland on the outside, but more often than not with a bit of universal truth tucked in the middle.
“The pen is mightier than the sword” has always been one of my favorites because the overlooked truth in that one is that our entire culture is in fact set upon a foundation of written words. Words move us, inspire us, sooth us, anger us: they’re the building blocks of civilization.
Writers as a group tend to be pretty much aware of the power of words and use them responsibly, but some choose to indeed use words as their personal swords, which they wield either to defend or attack. But swords have double edges, and if the wielder is not careful, one of the people they hurt, even unwittingly, can be themselves.
And that’s exactly what happened to the Dirt Peddler.
“Can we get our money back?” Jonathan asked as we left the theater.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “You didn’t like it? It was your idea, you know.”
“Well, it sure wasn’t what I was expecting.”
“And the title didn’t clue you in? L’amour Triste?”
“Oh, sure. Like I speak fluent Hungarian.”
I looked at him to verify that he was pulling my leg, and he grinned.
“Okay, okay, Sad Love. But the guys in the ad were really hot. How was I to know they were just going to sit there and moon over one another for two and a half hours?” Jonathan said, rolling his eyes.
“There was that one pretty interesting love scene at the end.”
“How could you tell? It looked like it was being photographed through the bottom of a fish tank.”
“Live and learn.”
“Gee, let me write that down!”
I grabbed him by the back of the neck with one hand and squeezed until he yelped.
Actually, L’amour Triste was part of the city’s first gay film festival playing at what was normally The Central’s gay porn house.
Jonathan and I were still at that stage of our relationship where even monthly anniversaries were special occasions, and for this one, our…uh…our “several-th,” we chose a night at the movies before going out for our “traditional” anniversary dinner.
I had also bought him a book he really wanted, An Illustrated Guide to Decorative Shrubs of North America. He’d just completed his first semester toward his associate degree in horticulture technology and really loved anything and everything that had to do with plants, trees, flowers, and shrubs—just about anything with roots.
Not surprisingly, it had to be special ordered and I’d decided to show my support for Bennington Books having opened a big new store in The Central, the city’s ever-expanding gay district. That a large, established chain had chosen The Central was further evidence of how the times were changing, and how far the gay community had come. And Bennington was not in real competition with the smaller, independent, community-oriented bookstores, which had provided so much support for gay and lesbian authors over the years. This was just my way of saying “thanks” to a mainstream company for recognizing the buying power of the gay community.
I’d gotten a notice the day before saying the book was in, so after we left the movie and before going on to dinner, we stopped there. Bennington’s was within walking distance of the theater, and as we approached the store I suddenly remembered that as part of its grand opening, there was a big to-do scheduled for that night: a personal appearance and book signing by Tony T. Tunderew, a local author whose book, Dirty Little Minds, had been at the top of the NY Times Best Sellers list for three weeks.
I’ve always been somewhat leery of people who insist on using their middle initials as part of their name—and especially those who appear to be overly fond of alliteration.
Dirty Little Minds was Tunderew’s first book, a steamy, barely fictionalized guided-sewer exposé of Governor Harry Keene, who had recently resigned in the wake of widespread rumors involving his alleged financial ties to the operator of a prostitution ring, whose services were widely available to the state’s executive branch.
Neither Tunderew nor the subject of the book was gay, so it struck me as a little odd that he’d be doing a signing in the heart of the gay community, but then I realized again that times were changing, and the event was to promote the new store, no matter where the store might have been. And that it drew people from outside of the community was yet another sign of the times.
There was a line stretching out onto the sidewalk of people clutching their copies of the book, awaiting Tunderew’s signature. Jonathan suggested we should just forget it and come back the next day, but I grabbed him by the hand and “excuse me’d” past those blocking the door. The line inside snaked its way past tables and racks of books to the rear of the store, where a crowd surrounded what I assume had to have been some sort of table. It was impossible to see either the table or whoever…uh, Tunderew, maybe?…might be sitting behind it.
There was no one behind the counter when we walked up to it, but a moment later a clerk, who had passed us headed for the front tables with an armload of Dirty Little Minds, hurried over.
“Sorry,” he said. “A real madhouse tonight.”
“So we noticed,” I said, and told him why we’d come. He smiled, glanced under the counter and, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, reached down and pulled out the book. Jonathan’s face broke into a huge grin as the clerk set it on the counter.
“Wow! This is great!” he said excitedly, immediately beginning to turn through the pages. “Thank you, Dick!”
The clerk gave us both a knowing grin.