“Dodging and Burning: a Mystery” (Pegasus Books), by John Copenhaver
“Dodging and Burning” is a riveting debut by John Copenhaver. It tackles a story that’s seldom explored in mysteries — life for gay men and lesbians during America’s post-World War II era. The intricate plot melds a coming-of-age story, a coming-out tale and a mystery with realistic characters who want to be accepted for themselves. “Dodging and Burning,” a photography term, works well as a metaphor for the characters whose freedoms to love and be themselves are limited by the time in which they live. The characters do a lot of dodging, and some burning, as they maneuver life in Royal Oak, a small Virginia town, as well as stints in the military.
The story kicks off in 2000 when mystery writer Bunny Prescott receives an anonymous envelope in the mail containing an old crime-scene photo. The photo sparks the memories of three characters, each of whom changed during 1945.
Back then, Bunny was 18, the daughter of Royal Oak’s wealthiest man who owned the local factory that made soda and was the town’s biggest employer. Bunny had a crush on Jay Greenwood, a photographer who was wounded during World War II and who now lives with his tyrannical grandmother. Ceola Bliss, age 12, also had a crush on Jay, who was the best friend of her adored brother, Robbie, who was declared missing during World War II. Jay wants the two girls to accompany him to the local woods where he claims he photographed a blond woman who had just been murdered. While he has the photographs, the body is missing when they get to the woods. The woman, he claims, was Lily Vellum, who recently may have been kidnapped.
Ceola is a fan of detective fiction, an interest she shared with Robbie and also Jay. But the real mystery is the secret life that Jay and Robbie led — secret lovers who could never acknowledge their relationship.
“Dodging and Burning” explores the secret gay life that existed during that time, as well as the bigotry and pure hatred that the closeted had to endure. Jay’s recounting of his war days is touching as he tries to fit in while also bonding with other gay soldiers. Don’t ask, don’t tell wasn’t even an option. But what Jay had to deal with in his hometown, where he was despised because of his feminine ways, is worse.
Several poignant scenes show Jay trying to explain to Ceola the relationship he has with Robbie. A 12-year-old in the 21st century would understand what being gay is, but Ceola is a product of 1940s and has little idea what being homosexual means. Yet Ceola’s adoration of her brother never lags, even her recollections are in the form of her speaking to long-deceased Robbie.
The brisk pace is augmented by the character studies and an in-depth look at gay rights.
Gay and lesbian mysteries have been published for decades. Columnist and short story writer Copenhaver brings a new voice to this genre with “Dodging and Burning.”