I mentioned it in my recent My Favorite Queer Book of Last Year Was “Lavender Housewp_postscolumn, I’ve been tweeting through it on main, and I’ll say it here again: It’s been a rough time to be a queer from Tennessee. It’s nothing unique, obviously — my Texas queers and Florida queers have borne the brunt of so much violent policy and virulent rhetoric — but it’s been a second since the spotlight of attention has been on the Volunteer State, roving instead over Arkansas and North Carolina and Missouri. The last time it felt like this was in 2013, when an early Don’t Say Gay bill was introduced and a bunch of us marched to the Capitol. When the bill failed, it felt like a victory; of course, it was really just an opening salvo.
Watching state governments topple legal protections against transphobia and homophobia like dominos, I indulge in separatist fantasy. I let myself wonder, what if we could just… not. What if none of this had to be this hard. What if I could gather my loved ones, what if we had a little place for ourselves, discrete and discreet and insulated from come-what-may.
Several times in the last few months, I’ve returned to a book I fell head-over-heels in love with this past fall for the galvanizing reality check I need. Now, it’s been announced as a series (installment two comes this fall!), and I finally have something to look forward to amidst all the state senate sessions and ACLU cases I dread. For now, let’s look back at the first book. Lev A. C. Rosen’s adult debut Lavender House punctures separatist fantasy to replace it with something stronger and more satisfying — the effect calls to mind Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Sonnet 139 on activism, where she declares:
Lean comfort for the starving, who intrude
upon them with our pots of pity: brewed
from stronger meat must be the broth we give…
If I would help the weak, I must be fed
in wit and purpose, pour away despair
and rinse the cup, eat happiness like bread.
Giving up and opting out, even in daydreams, is drinking from a pot of pity; it may taste nice, but it won’t sustain me for long.
Set in 1952, in the pre-Stonewall era of vice raids and watchful euphemisms, Lavender House is the story of gay detective Evander Mills in the Sonoma valley outside of San Francisco whose plan to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge is averted by the arrival of a mysterious woman hoping to hire him to solve a case. Andy’s been caught in a vice raid by his fellow cops, outed and kicked off the force, cut loose from the job that gave him pride and purpose under deeply painful circumstances. But Pearl slides into the seat next to him and quietly tells him she needs his help, she’s heard of him through (ahem) mutual friends, and he’s the only detective she trusts to investigate the murder of her wife. He’s startled — wife??? But he’s heard her correctly.
She and her wife Irene, she tells him, have lived very happily together at their mansion Lavender House on a lush private estate for many years. It’s where they raised their son Henry, the heir apparent to Irene’s lucrative soap and fragrance company, and where he now lives alongside them with his wife Margo… and his boyfriend, and his wife’s girlfriend. OOOP. That’s right — Lavender House, known to most simply as the home of a chic and secretive millionaire, is a secret queer commune for this unconventional family. At first glance, it sounds dreamy, and Andy isn’t immune to its utopian promise. But the illusion’s been shattered, and the violence, grief, and paranoia of a homophobic society has found its way in. Andy is grimly sympathetic; he thought he could outrun the violence of society-at-large too, and having been similarly brutally disabused of this hope, he sees his own question reflected in Irene’s case: How could this have happened when we thought we were finally safe?
The answer, of course, is that separatism and camouflaged assimilation are both brittle protections. The family’s prosperity depends on its secrecy; Henry and Margo play their parts to perfection in high society but must keep even a whiff of association with their actual partners Cliff and Elsie under wraps. They depend on the buy-in of the estate’s staff; in this Upstairs-Downstairs dynamic, we see working-class queers Pat, Dot, and Judy keeping the show running as butler, cook, and gardener respectively. They receive Lavender House’s protection and their own space to live freely, and their investment in the house’s sustained secrecy in turn protects the family from fear of servants’ gossip that would otherwise leak their secrets to a hostile outside world. They’ve done everything they can to keep the seal tight; and yet…
This is where Lavender House blew me away. As much as it savors its luxe homage to Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and the like, it never flinches from the political, social, and economic implications of its premise. Andy may be gay, but he hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to build relationships in his queer community. This is not a solidarity-savvy guy, and identity alone is not enough to earn him the trust of witnesses who know all too well the kind of harm he and his former colleagues enacted as vice cops. Lavender House forces the reckoning: If Andy hadn’t been caught, would he have kept on terrorizing his own community on weekday raids and sidling up to the bar as a customer on weekends? Did homophobic violence only start mattering to him when he was on the receiving end of it? Was he being a survivor, or a coward? I can’t remember the last time I encountered a mystery novel that grappled so thoughtfully and sensitively with the contradictions of a queer former-cop. It doesn’t just raise the questions, either; it follows through with them and doesn’t let Andy off the hook. What does it mean to be an agent of a hostile state as a member of a marginalized community? What has to happen for solidarity within the queer community to trump your allegiance to your chosen profession? Lord knows that mysteries and procedurals have served as unalloyed copaganda for so long; it’s powerful to encounter a book that interrogates this.
In doing so, Rosen also does a powerful job of capturing the sheer variety of pre-Stonewall queer life. There’s “and they were roommates”, there’s a lavender marriage, there’s a slick sexy androgynous lesbian bar owner, there’s a principled butch gardener and her wry chef partner. There is “hey we don’t really know each other per se, but we know the same people who go to the same barswp_postsrecognition. There is sloppy flirtatious chaos. There are several interesting nods to the class stratification of the queer scene — after all, Andy can’t afford the drinks at Elsie’s bar, where he would have been protected from vice raids by her bribes; like Andy, Pat also frequents the cheaper bars where he’s been beaten terribly by cops during raids; Cliff is wholly financially dependent on Henry’s fortune and feels a way about the precarity of being an unmarried sort-of house-husband. But under one roof, they live out the old-fashioned secret-handshake — they’re family, with all the tension and mess and tangled fondness that such a metaphor entails.
The mystery itself is delicious; there’s red herrings, there’s snappy dialogue, there’s wild coincidences and no shortage of suspense. Irene comes slowly into focus through the gazes of those who knew and loved her, and after all she’d done to assemble and protect this ragtag queer family, her murder in her fragrance library feels propulsive. There’s a reason it’s likened to Knives Out, and it has a healthy helping of film noir in there as well. Rosen has done a great job of ensuring that this book’s queerness isn’t just a superficial sticker on an existing genre; in fact, it shows that the defensiveness and suspicion and carefully-assembled layers that distinguish the genre are all deeply queer experiences. If those things are what distinguish noir storytelling, then queer lives have home field advantage.
All of which is to say: This book threads the needle. On one hand, it is absolutely a masterpiece of mystery (perfect for those reading-by-the-fireplace nights). On the other hand, it is also a resonant allegory and testament to the bravery of queer survival that does not come at the cost of solidarity but rather as the result of it. Withdrawing from the world is no solution; it’s deprivation. Irene’s death is a tragedy that punctures the “we’re safe, we’re out of the woodswp_postsfantasy of Lavender House, but by opening its doors to Andy and offering him proof that redemption, connection, and purpose are possible, the house turns all its inhabitants from “familywp_postsinto real kindred. That is no small consolation prize.
That’s what’s fed me with wit and purpose each of the three times I’ve returned to Lavender House since its launch in October. I haven’t loved a series like this since the Vera Kelly novels by Rosalie Knecht, and with that trilogy’s conclusion last summer, Rosen’s series comes just when I need it most. Rosen has done a masterful job inhabiting all the tensions, contradictions, and vivid details of mid century queer life while keeping a rigorous eye turned toward its implications for our twenty-first century. This book is an invigorating mirror for our current political moment, and one that reminds me that Lavender House’s meaning and magic come from the way it lets people in rather than keeping the rest of the world out. It may be far from a utopia out there, but it’s worth sticking around for. It’s worth each little stubborn act of defiance that adds up to collective progress.