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The Bell in the Fog


The Bell in the Fog

Fans of LAVENDER HOUSE, Lev AC Rosen’s queer, noir mystery, can rejoice: Andy Mills has embraced his role as a private investigator and officially has taken on his next big case.

THE BELL IN THE FOG picks up only a few months after the previous book. Andy is officially out and has taken up residence at a queer club. The Ruby's owner, Elsie, was helped by Andy on his first case and believes that he has a lot to offer, especially to those who are forced to hide in the shadows to be themselves and therefore cannot rely on the usual crime-stopping methods: police, lawyers and the court system. Their justice instead must be doled out in secret, and given that Andy is “one of them,” he alone seems to be their best bet for keeping crime out of their community.

It’s a great idea in theory, but there’s one major problem: Andy, forcibly beaten out of his role as a cop, remains untrustworthy in the eyes of the queer community. Once a cop, always a cop, they think. Even if Andy has suffered a fall from grace, there’s no denying that he was complicit in the raids, beatings and cruel arrests of his own community --- and he did nothing to stop any of it. Simply put, his reputation is bad for business and for himself, and the small-time cases he’s been pursuing (mostly queer men trying to find out if their boyfriends are cheating on them with wives and girlfriends) aren’t helping anyone make ends meet.

"Lev AC Rosen has to be one of the most gifted, talented writers working today.... This is officially my new favorite mystery series."

Then a man appears in Andy’s office, but as soon as he looks across his desk, he realizes that this individual is desperate beyond measure. After all, why else would Andy’s first love, who abandoned him during their time in the Navy (at the height of the witch hunt for homosexuals in service), return to ask him for help? Andy’s suspicion is correct. James, now a captain, is up for a promotion, which means that all eyes are on him --- making it the perfect time for a former lover to crop up with sexual photos of him, threatening to blackmail him. The sum that the man, Danny, has requested is insane. James doesn’t want to negotiate with someone who would out one of his own anyway, but he can’t afford to investigate either. Enter Andy Mills.

It’s not hard for Andy to track Danny to his apartment, but instead of Danny, he finds his twin sister, Donna. She tells Andy that her brother has been missing and she hasn’t seen him in a month...except for when they went shopping last weekend. Donna’s story doesn’t add up, and it’s not until Andy spots her at a queer club that he starts to guess why. He quickly assumes that Donna is in on Danny’s blackmailing scheme. But even then, nothing about their background, their histories at the queer clubs of San Francisco, or even the method of their blackmailing adds up.

The case is dizzying enough with multiple club owners and performers, the mysterious twins and an old flame involved, but Andy is already grappling with his identity on multiple levels. Whereas the Andy we met in LAVENDER HOUSE was more discreet and ashamed of his identity, this Andy is prouder, more open…but even more guilt-ravaged by his past as a cop. Having been unable, until now, to make connections (or, dare I say, friends) at the Ruby, he has had too much time to dwell on his own mistakes and identity.

He knew who Andy the queer, closeted cop was (even if he was a self-loathing fake), but figuring out who Andy the queer PI might be is much more difficult, especially when carrying the weight of his past. Seeing James and being reminded of his time in the Navy --- and the breakup that sent him spiraling --- makes it even harder, and watching how James performs an act of heterosexual masculinity to preserve his life both fascinates and sickens him. Is it better to live in the light under a facade, or open but in the shadows?

Andy’s personal quest for identity weaves and intertwines with the case as more figures from his past emerge. They include Helen, who served in the Navy with Andy, James and Lee, a performer who says he once asked Andy out when he was still hiding. But James’ case is far from a simple blackmail, and when bodies begin to turn up, Andy realizes that it won’t be over when he finds James’ photos. This mystery is much more intricate than any he has worked on before. Worse, he must solve it completely alone (save for some helpful, keen-eyed tips from Lee, his girl Friday). And, of course, the entire investigation must be done in secret. As Andy notes, “Most people don’t really think it’s a crime to kill a criminal --- and all of us are criminals to the rest of the world.”

Lev AC Rosen has to be one of the most gifted and talented writers working today. I’m a longtime fan of his work for young adults, and while I loved LAVENDER HOUSE for its celebration of queer love and surprisingly dark noir elements, THE BELL IN THE FOG blows its predecessor out of the water. Rosen’s handling of this mystery is brisk and smart, and the hardboiled elements are perfectly matched by his melancholy, guilt-ridden protagonist. Whereas Rosen explored the trappings of community and safe havens in the previous book, here he takes his analysis a step further, showing what happens to marginalized communities when crime against them is a given, and how they must band together to find justice on their own.

In addition to this expansion of the world of 1950s San Francisco, Rosen fleshes out Andy’s past, turning this already captivating mystery into something deeply personal and just as satisfying. This is officially my new favorite mystery series.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on November 10, 2023

The Bell in the Fog
by Lev AC Rosen