Tuesday, April 3, 2018


FAIR PLAY by Rose Beecham (Silver Moon Books, 1995)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

The Third Inspector Amanda Valentine Mystery. The son of a Baptist preacher, Bryce Petty looked like a choir boy. But when he is found murdered his less-than-angelic past becomes front-page news. President of a lesbian and gay broadcasting firm, Bryce had vanished a few months previously, leaving behind him a trail of bad publicity and debts. When Detective Inspector Amanda Valentine starts to investigate the man's life she soon finds that there were a lot of people who wanted him dead.

More than twenty years old and long out-of-print, it's still well worth revisiting Kiwi author Rose Beecham's trilogy of books featuring American-Kiwi detective Amanda Valentine.

Set in the New Zealand's capital city, Wellington, during the early 1990s, these books were part of a groundbreaking wave that saw female detectives and LGBT characters begin to elbow more into lead roles in crime fiction, and contained some elements that were considered controversial at the time, even if they were pitched as 'lighter' mysteries.

Beecham included not only lesbian and gay characters in her stories, but sex workers and transgender characters, in each case portrayed with some compassion and nuance rather than just as caricatures. Each book has a range of such characters, in a variety of roles, not just a token one here or there.

In FAIR PLAY, Valentine is faced with a couple of tricky cases. First, there's a high-profile trans-Tasman murder inquiry, when Bryce Petty, the head of a gay and lesbian broadcaster in Australia, turns up dead in Wellington, months after he vanished under a cloud. Valentine has to juggle investigations in Melbourne and Wellington, and colleagues on both sides of the marine border. At the same time, a problematic junior colleague in Wellington has brought her a tricky local case that's entwined with some in the local lesbian community. Valentine herself is a closeted lesbian, now in an ongoing, if on-off and open, relationship with a famous newsreader who's currently in Rwanda.

So there are plenty of complications for Detective Inspector Amanda Valentine, both professionally and personally, as the stories in FAIR PLAY unfold. I enjoyed the read. Beecham tells a good story, and I think it largely holds up even after so much time has passed. It can read a little 'light' in tone, maybe dated in parts (not heavily, just a shade) - or perhaps a better description is 'of its time'.

It's interesting to reflect on the latter, and realise how much things have changed - in some ways, at least a bit - in twenty years. I'm not really the target audience for FAIR PLAY, which was one of many books brought out by specialist publishers like Naiad and Silver Moon to cater for an LGBT audience who were looking for romance and mystery stories featuring interesting LGBT characters. But even so, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and the entire Amanda Valentine trilogy. I didn't find anything off-putting about the romantic elements or the portrayal of various characters and issues.

It's easy to forget that attitudes weren't the same twenty years ago. FAIR PLAY was even 'banned' in Canada at the time, having been deemed by border officials to contain 'obscene material' - the book along with others became part of a legal battle fought by a Vancouver bookshop, Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium, against Canadian customs preemptively deciding such gay and lesbian literature was obscene and couldn't be imported and shipped to specialist stores like Little Sister's.

It's startling to think of the different attitudes in even 'liberal' countries like Canada, only a couple of decades ago. While being glad that things seem to have improved, at least a bit. And a reminder to contemporary readers that characters and issues we read about now which may not seem particularly controversial to us may have been groundbreaking back then - and very brave of authors to tackle.

I understand that even the author herself sees her Amanda Valentine trilogy as somewhat 'lightweight' when it came to the mystery and crime elements, corralled by the requirements of her publishers, and I've seen from other critics that they rate her later US-set Judy Devine series as stronger crime reads. I'll definitely have to dig those out too, but for me, I enjoyed travelling back to Wellington in the 1990s and riding alongside Detective Valentine as she sought to solve cases while dealing with the misogyny and discrimination that was even more rife and blatant throughout society back then.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for newspapers and magazines in several countries. In recent years he has interviewed 200 crime writers, discussed the genre onstage at books festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, and has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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