Content warning: Lavender House, and therefore this review, discusses characters experiencing suicidal ideation
Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen brings the atmosphere and mystery of a classic noir novel into the lives of queer people in the 1950s. Set in San Francisco, the novel follows Evander Mills, who has recently been kicked off the police force after getting caught in flagrante during a raid on a gay club. Evander feels like his life is over, and is set on ending it when Pearl Velez walks into the bar. She offers him a job specifically because he’s gay: she wants him to investigate the potential murder of her wife, Irene LaMontaigne. As Evander looks into Irene’s murder, he finally meets a cast of characters also navigating the world as queer people – but one of them may be a murderer.
Lavender House characters truly shine. Each character is a full person who not only makes a great murder suspect, but has their own ways of navigating a semi-closeted life. As Evander arrives at Lavender House he meets the residents, who are all in gay relationships and manage it by pretending to be a traditional hetero family to the outside world. Pearl was Irene’s secretary to the public, and Henry is married to Margo, but they are both with Cliff (Henry’s secretary) and Elsie respectively. Even the staff are gay. Behind the walls of Lavender House are the only places where they can be truly who they are, but it’s the closest thing most folks get to being out in this time. For a lot of authors that would probably be enough to qualify as character development, but Rosen takes the time to examine each person and their own motivations and approach to their life. Elsie, for example, runs a gay club in the city and doesn’t always stay at the House. She pays protection money to the police to keep her club from being raided and pretends not to know Margo when they run into each other at society functions. Cliff, on the other hand, tends to stay home, drink gin, and practice his Betty Davis impression. These things bring a reality to the characters that makes them feel like not just carbon copies following the rule of “this is what all gay people experienced then, so this is how they would all react.”
What Worked: Characters with great depth and historic details
What Didn’t: Honestly I have no major negative notes
Recommended Listening: Big Band and Jazz
Part of this excellent character development is that Rosen has clearly done his research when it comes to the historical setting. Descriptions of environments, clothing and music all combine to make a deliciously noir setting. Rosen also presents a full and varied picture of all the ways heteronormative society did and did not tolerate queer folks at the time. Risk of beatings by police was only a part of it. Rosen lays out all the ways that status, money and health can be taken away at any time. Yet Cliff and Evander both reminisce about their time in the military, where the “we could all die at any moment” atmosphere fostered a sort of quiet acceptance. Noir mysteries are very rarely about nuance but there is plenty to be had in Lavender House.
The mystery itself is well written, with those fleshed out characters each adding their own motivations to thicken the plot. It’ll have you second guessing who the murderer is right to the end, when the mystery’s answer feels earned, not a surprise. The story doesn’t outstay its welcome either: you aren’t left guessing so long that you don’t care about it anymore. It makes for a great easy read that pairs emotional depths with a good murder mystery.
Lavender House is out Oct. 18, 2022 and makes for a great story accented by grounded queer characters. Thanks to Tor Publishing Group for providing us with an advanced reader copy.