A gay private investigator is hired to probe a blackmail threat against a conservative Mormon politician in this comic detective novel.
In the fall of 1996, Tampa, Florida-area congressman Dick Whitlock is up for re-election. As a Mormon Republican running on a family values platform, he can’t afford scandal, so when he’s threatened with blackmail—via compromising photographs of his son, Tony—he hires 30-year-old private eye Jimmy Campaglia. The out and proud Jimmy heads up the agency of Campaglia and Chilton with his bong-hitting boyfriend, Bailey. Jimmy narrates this sexy, convoluted thriller in an appropriately hard-boiled style; for example, when he’s asked to meet with the handsome, seductive Tony in his bedroom, he reflects, “Something tells me he thinks he has the upper hand. Something tells me he knows what I like.” Indeed, before leaving the Whitlock mansion, he enjoys a shower with Tony; later, they and Bailey have an erotic encounter at a gay sex club. On the blackmailer’s trail, Jimmy follows leads to a house where he discovers Adrian, the Whitlocks’ second son, drugged and posed nude in the company of a dead photographer whose film is missing. Then things get even more complicated: a Whitlock chauffeur dies suspiciously, a 911 call goes astray, books on terrorism surface, another extortion attempt is made, and conspirators turn on each other. In his debut novel, Swanson has a good handle on his intricate plot, keeping readers well-oriented as its many developments occur. He also uses his colorful, corrupt Florida setting well: the oversized Whitlock mansion, for example, is described as “a photo-spread sample of what happens when new money loves Gone With the Wind.” Jimmy can be amusingly snide, but the novel’s obsession with physical beauty is unpleasant and makes its characters predictable; unattractiveness and obesity signals evil as surely as black hats do in a Western. Similarly, Jimmy’s gender-normative judgments—he’s brutal about masculine women and effeminate men—could match any conservative politician’s. Still, the protagonist is smart and tough, and Swanson humanizes him with a weakness for irresponsible men and ownership of an 18-pound Himalayan cat.
This Florida-set noir makes a few missteps but offers a twisty plot and a hard-boiled, erotically adventurous detective.