Last summer, as I prepped for my 2008 NaNoWriMo about a gay insurance agent in the 1980’s, I ran across mention of a series of made-for-TV movies about a gay private eye in Albany. Some positive reactions online led me to Netflix the first couple of movies and I enjoyed them enough to be interested when it was noted that they were based on a series of novels.

It turns out that they’re by Richard Stevenson (actually Richard Lipez), who has reviewed mystery and crime novels in the Washington Post for years. The novels are about a gay private eye named Donald Strachey and his non-detective boyfriend, Timmy. In the movie, they’re a couple of cutie-pie lifestyle queens, with Timmy being played by Sebastian Spence, aka “Narcho” from Battlestar Galactica, and Strachey being played by the ever-hot Chad Allen. They are portrayed as having an almost Cleaverian homelife, so picturesque it nearly grates. There’s a lot of plush set dressing and a cute dog and they get style points for giving Strachey a beater car and a classic, sunlight-through-dust-clouds hardboiled office.

In the novels, I’ve found, their relationship has a lot more texture to it. The novels have proven to be a lot racier and seedier than the movies, but in a good way. The natural comparison is with Nick & Nora Charles of The Thin Man and this extends to the grungier side of their adventures. Nick & Nora were not well-behaved or well-mannered, and for their time they were pretty free-wheeling while still perfectly in tune with one another. So, too, with the Donald and Timmy of the books, who engage in banter that makes the reader think they’d be fun to know and who back one another up with a vengeance but at the same time have enough points of disagreement and enough bad behavior between the two of them to keep them both distinct and interesting.

The banter is really worth a special comment. I was chatting about this on a MOO the other day with Jos and Deadblob and I was saying that I think one of the symptoms of the progressive cynicism our society has taken on in the last fifty years* is that we have let our standards sink woefully low in the banter department. These days we watch The Hero and The Villain trade insults and we call it “banter,” but as Deadblob put it, they’re basically having a “yo mama” fight. If you go back far enough in pop culture, you find exchanges that can be both sharp-edged, perhaps even barbed, but still somehow more inviting, more open, more give and take than what we get today. I love me a good Whedon-penned dialogue as much as the next nerd but Buffy just ain’t got a thing on The Big Sleep or Charade or The Thin Man. Stevenson’s novels have that same classic banter – “shuttlecock,” Deadblob called it – in which characters are always more clever than real life, clever in a way that gives as good as it gets, clever the way we wish we and everyone else were clever all the time except when it would get too tiring.

Happily, they also enjoy some genuinely bothersome villains, disturbing brutes and scheming parties whose machinations are genuinely grotesque. I’m reading basically one a week on my lunch breaks and finding them very satisfying. They can be a little hard to find, but well worth it, and easily picked up out-of-order., which is good, since the ones most easily found are not the first or most recent books in the series; they’re the ones that have been (heavily) adapted to the screen.