Think “Stonewall,” and you conjure up images of gay and trans bar patrons in New York’s Greenwich Village who finally had seen enough of police brutality and baseless arrests, and fought back in June 1969: the beginning of the gay rights movement.
Not so fast. There were early stirrings of homosexual emancipation in central Europe in the mid-19th century, the elimination of sexually repressive laws in the early years of the USSR, an important movement in the Weimar years in Germany, and beginning in the 1950s, the homophile movement in the U.S., led at first by Marxist-minded men, such as Harry Hay.
In fact, the first mass protest demonstrations in the U.S.against anti-gay police oppression took place not in New York, but in front of the Black Cat bar in Los Angeles in 1967.
There are books by historians and scholars where you can look all this up. But if you happen to love fast-paced mystery thrillers that use words like Weegee used scandal-dripping crime photos, and you want to tuck a bit of this underground social history under your belt, Steve Neil Johnson may be your ticket.
As avid crime readers well know, Los Angeles is a familiar locale for genre writers. It’s a canvas upon which they can project their intensely focused social analysis. The noir sensibility lends itself to uncovering secrets, corruption, deception, vice at unexpected levels of society.
Noted for his Doug Orlando murder novels involving a gay cop, the socially conscious, streetwise Johnson has in recent years started “The L.A. After Midnight Quartet,” a series of four books using the L.A. LGBTQ community as his setting, over a period of four decades. Recurring characters have already appeared in The Yellow Canary, taking place in the 1950s, the early dawn of the gay liberation movement, and most recently in The Black Cat, which brings the central figure of Paul Winters, a closeted but ambitious City Hall prosecutor, up into the 1960s.
It’s easy enough to pick on the prostitutes, bums, and down-and-outs who inhabit a large city like L.A. It’s quite another thing to lift the curtain on the murderous antics of prominent families such as the Chandlers, owners of the Los Angeles Times and major political power players in town. It was important for Johnson to include this disclaimer on his new book, “Names, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.” Because the Chandlers would most certainly not appreciate seeing themselves depicted in this very noir light.
Being a crime novelist, Johnson concentrates on tightly plotted exposition of murders and investigations, in the process revealing layer upon layer of L.A.’s many subcultures and their interpenetrations, from the inner-city to the glittering halls of the new Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Downtown Music Center. Who could have guessed that the tax base funding this gleaming palace of culture was extracted from sudden property tax increases on small, minority homeowners who likely would never set foot in the place?
“Three people dead,” Johnson writes, “and tens of thousands cheated out of their hard-earned wages, Paul thought, and it all started with a little adulterous pillow talk. ‘Whoever said adultery is a victimless crime?’ he muttered under his breath.” More than that I shall not reveal, but that’s only the beginning of the fun!
The mark of a significant genre writer is not just that the pieces of his ingenious puzzle fit neatly together like the mechanism of a fine Swiss watch. It’s what he does with the genre that makes him stand out from the rest. Johnson shows character traits through the words and actions of his large cast, so that the reader is genuinely concerned about their fate. The Black Cat will be hard to put down.
From the point of view of gay history, Johnson’s new novel is set at a moment when for the first time large numbers of LGBTQ people were willing to identify themselves as such, thus transforming our cultural scene forever. Who could have imagined that less than 50 years later, same-gender marriage would be normal in a dozen or more countries, and undoubtedly very soon in every corner of the United States? We need our artists and writers to remind us of where we came from.
The Black Cat
By Steve Neil Johnson
Available from Clutching Hand Books in print and Kindle versions.