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Lavender House


Lavender House

Lev AC Rosen, best known for his young adult novel CAMP, returns with LAVENDER HOUSE, a queer locked-room mystery that is as enticing as it is historically resonant.

The world of queer people in the 1950s is a quiet but dangerous one, where love is criminalized and identities are strictly policed. No one knows this better than Evander (Andy) Mills, a former detective who has been abruptly cut from his squad after being caught on his knees during the raid of a club known for hosting “immoral goings-on.” Having originally joined the police force out of a desire to help others, Andy is keenly aware that he never assisted his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and karma has punched him square in the nose for it.

On the day we meet Andy, he is drowning his sorrows in a fifth martini, preparing to take a nice, permanent bath in the bay, never to be seen or heard from again. Fortunately, he is stopped by the arrival of Pearl Velez, who says she knows why he was fired from the force…but that it’s actually a selling point for her.

"LAVENDER HOUSE is a crisply and cleverly constructed novel: the noir-like mystery at its heart is strong, but it is made stronger --- rather than weighed down --- by the stylish, punchy and historically accurate choices of its author."

The wife of the matriarch of the esteemed Lamontaine soap empire, Pearl has a mystery for Andy. Her spouse, Irene, has recently died of an accidental fall or a murderous push from her balcony, and she is desperate to know which. Because the two women shared a home as wives, she cannot invite the prying eyes of the San Francisco police. But when she learns of a recently outed cop, she knows she has found someone who not only can help her solve this mystery, but can examine her home --- and all of its queer occupants --- with a clear, nonjudgmental eye.

Named for its gorgeous purple accents and the flower garden that surrounds it, Lavender House has always been owned by Irene Lamontaine. Together, she and Pearl raised her son, Henry, who also identifies as queer. In an effort to maintain the family image, Irene long ago helped Henry find a wife, Margo, who has no issue with their arrangement as it keeps her safe as a passing straight woman while also allowing her to live in sin with her girlfriend, Elsie. Henry also has a lover, Cliff. Rounding out their group are three queer servants, along with Margo’s mother, Alice, the only straight member of their household.

Andy’s interest is piqued by the potential murder investigation, but what really sells him on the case is the opportunity to enter a house of freedom --- where inhabitants are neither passing as straight nor seeking brief, harried moments of sexual liberation, but merely living: queer, open and loved. However, it becomes clear that their freedom is also a form of imprisonment. Though Irene tried to keep them safe within those walls, there’s no stopping the outside world --- and its terrors --- from coming in. While they all live freely within the house, they are unable to socialize with others, make connections outside of family and lovers, and live fully as one’s own.

Even worse, Andy finds that nearly everyone there had a motive to kill Irene (who he quickly determines was dead long before she hit the floor beneath her balcony): Pearl, set to inherit nearly half of the soap empire; Henry, the true heir to the business; Margo, who has a head for numbers and has longed for more power; Elsie and Cliff, who live freely but with no claim to their partners or their fortunes; and Alice, who insists that she's fine with the sexual preferences of her housemates, but clearly holds on to some ignorant prejudices and fears.

LAVENDER HOUSE is a crisply and cleverly constructed novel: the noir-like mystery at its heart is strong, but it is made stronger --- rather than weighed down --- by the stylish, punchy and historically accurate choices of its author. As Rosen notes in his back matter, history books and our own modern biases often encourage us to believe that queer people were invented with Stonewall and that everyone was straight or yearning before then. They have existed --- and loved, supported and, yes, married each other --- in even the most perilous times.

But Rosen doesn’t dwell on the darkest parts of queer history (though he doesn’t shy away from them, either), choosing instead to show readers what freedom really means to those for whom even existence is a crime. The striking dissonance between the freedoms of his characters and the dark, old-money murder at the heart of the novel makes every chapter immersive, spellbinding and utterly riveting.

An old-world mystery written for a new-world audience, LAVENDER HOUSE is everything readers love about noir mysteries elevated by everything missing from them: marginalized characters, modernized tropes and clear-eyed reckonings with painful histories. Rosen is an absolute gem of an author, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on November 5, 2022

Lavender House
by Lev AC Rosen