Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review of "The Killer Wore Leather" by Laura Antoniou

The Killer Wore Leather is the kind of book that makes my job so much more difficult. A critic wants something to criticize, after all. But here, alas, I cannot find a nit to pick, and with no glaringly obvious flaws to target, three quarters of my juiciest potential vocabulary goes begging; that vast, delightful repertory of tin-god invective, hoity-toity hyperbole, bald-faced condescension and snot-nosed snark that makes a reviewer’s life worth living. I can’t use any of it! At this rate my vitriol’s going to dry up and spoil on the shelf.

Oh, come to think of it, I do have one eentsy complaint about The Killer Wore Leather; it ends. (Sincerest apologies for the spoiler.) The book’s 402 pages (or their electronic equivalent) breeze by with such engaging alacrity, that I found myself in the mild throes of literary postpartum let-down when it was over—surest symptom of an enjoyable read if there ever was one. To be sure, I could have lingered quite happily in Antoniou’s world for another thousand pages—easy!—danced all night and still have stayed for more. The ending itself is perfectly satisfying given what comes before; a murder is committed, investigated and solved just as in countless other genre outings, but the proceedings here are described with so much panache, observed so astutely, with such sympathetic realism and detail, good humor, and—dare one say it?—love, that we’re left wanting more of these subtly-drawn characters and their intriguing interactions.

The Killer Wore Leather coopts the staid convention of the cozy mystery, and turns it on its head, not merely updating the genre to the age of Twitter and Facebook, but brilliantly transmogrifying it to the realm of contemporary cosplay and kink. Of course, masked balls and costume parties have been a traditional mainstay of cozy mystery for more than a century, though seldom fielding the kind of huge, diverse, colorful ensemble-cast Antoniou directs with such seeming effortlessness here. (The only thing coming close in recent decades might be Margaret Frazer’s 1987 who-done-it, Murder at the War (published by St. Martin’s under the pseudonym Mary Monica Pulver), which features a Cecil B. DeMille-sized cast in medieval garb at the Society for Creative Anachronism’s big real-life annual gathering in Pennsylvania.)  Antoniou sets her story at a weekend confab of leather-lifestyle enthusiasts, some 3,000 costumed kinksters crowded into a downtown New York City hotel for the annual Mr. and Mrs. Global Leather (and Bootblack) competition. When a previous title-holder is found dead in his suite, there’s more than enough motive to go around—everybody, it seems, hated the guy—and more suspicious black leather accessories taken into evidence than forensics can possibly analyze before the conventioneers, including potential suspects, head for home on Monday. So, there’s a race against time, bringing its own built-in element of suspense; thousands of possible disguises with a would-be red herring in leather, latex, rubber or fur behind each one, and the bewildering vagaries of personal and organizational politics, virtually impenetrable to an outsider. It’s an absolutely ingenious premise for a police procedural, and Antoniou follows through on this set-up with dazzling deftness, never missing a beat or a nuance, never once letting the reader down.   

Anybody who’s ever dabbled in cosplay or been involved in one of those broad, ever-evolving shared-special-interest groups, clubs or organizations, will immediately recognize some of these characters; the long-suffering event organizer, trying to put on a good show along with a pleasant face for every needy, self-centered whiner no matter how trivial their demands; the bossy, slightly overweight, non-fool-suffering, hyper-efficient head-volunteer who dreams, in her rare off moments, of being dominated by just the right guy; the clueless PC do-gooder, always advocating for some new imagined minority, whether they want her to or not; the dignified and deeply-respected grand dame who becomes a major bitch behind closed doors; the catty, perpetually bemused “I’m so above all this” intellectual-snob-cum-petty-minded sniper; the ever-petulant “I could do a better job than him or her” malcontents; the lost souls and broken outsiders with no other place to hang out; the quietly perceptive, if often invisible, volunteers (in this case. a pair of ultra-hip gender-bending Dromeos, the gofers Boy Jack and Boi Jack), with continually streaming color commentary on whatever’s going on; the mostly nameless, faceless servants and service people, who see everything and only need to be asked to reveal the most mind-blowing of secrets. Antoniou has their numbers and writes them all to a tee; the cadres and cliques; us-versus-them staid traditionalists versus boat-rocking upstart newcomers; snobs and slobs; pompous roll-playing blowhards a bit too into their personae for their own good, or anyone else’s; the junior-league Machiavelli wannabes, and all the shifting alliances, resentments, personal vendettas and concomitant motives, means and opportunities for murder that make an extraordinary mystery into a compelling, irresistible page-turner.

Lots of writers have a good eye for character and a sound ear for dialog; but Antoniou has a way of capturing the subtle nuances of ordinary human behavior without calling undue attention to herself or her process, clearly understanding Heisenberg’s principal that the very act of observation changes the thing being observed. This is what an effective homicide detective, like Antoniou’s Laura Feldblum, must understand as well; a question, posed too soon, too late, or left unasked altogether, may irrevocably alter the dynamic of an entire investigation. Journalists are often excused their carelessness:

DOM, SUB, SLAVE, PUPPY, SWITCH, ALPHA, PRIMARY, BOY or boi, master, mistress or sir and ma’am, top and bottom, 24/7, twink, tourist, Zodian, polyamorous, lifestyler, leather, latex, gear, cyberpunk, steampunk, uniform, vampire, furry . . .

Nancy Nichols hadn’t had such an extensive vocabulary list since the fourth grade. Arriving bright and early to discover the fallout from the meet and greet debacle, she was armed with a scene guide she’d discovered online, scrolling through the wonderful cheat sheet on her smart phone. She hadn’t bothered to do much research on the leather community before—who had the time for real work on a turkey-ass story like this one? But now that it seemed full of filler pieces she could spread out long past the actual event, it was worth it to get a grip on the lingo. She already had outlines for three lifestyle pieces, and the bones of her big story on the event itself.

Nancy also had joined Kinkynet; she’d picked the screen name TELLMEKINKYSTORIES after she found out there were no less than eighty MISTRESSNANCY and LADYNANCY accounts already registered. The chat boards there had been full of outraged and delighted recounts of the Mack Steel outburst, many seeming to be from people who were not actually present.


Including the journalist as well as the detectives in the cast allows the reader to explore ideas, at once essential to the plot, but potentially overwhelming to the uninitiated. It would have been all-too-easy for the author to turn a story like this into an apologia for Kink, a piece of propaganda posing as documentary or some sort of rambling encyclopedic data-dump. True, many of the characters here are willing and eager to talk about their lifestyle and cast it in the most positive of possible lights; but Antoniou skillfully avoids the too-common pitfall of preachy-ness. She does not patronize the outsider or shame him for merely asking an innocent question. Nor do the characters shy away from criticism or complaint. (In other words, they talk and act, live, love, hate, enthuse and effuse, bitch and moan exactly like real people.) Antoniou clearly loves some of these characters; certainly respects many of them, enough to make even a few of the minor players more than mere stage dressing:

“Would the honored free woman like to know why this slave lives this way?” she said lightly. When the folds had been arranged to her liking, she crossed her legs and said, “Because this one is happy to explain.”
“Yeah, cool, let her explain,” Blade said, nodding.
Jazz shrugged, and phyl’ta bowed her head for a moment. When she looked back up, the aspect of simple, smiling passivity was gone from her face.

“I’ll tell you why I do it,” she said, no longer keeping her voice in the upper registers. Several eyes widened at the change in her tone and style of speaking. “And you know what? I don’t care if that old . . . lesbian wrote it for a joke or protest or whatever. Because I’m not doing it for her, and I’m not doing it for any of you, and I sure am not doing it ‘cause I think it’s some mystical, magical truth.”

“Whoa,” Kelly exclaimed. “Okay?”
“Look, I grew up in L.A.,” phyl’ta said, “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be short and fat in the land of tall and skinny? To burn like a potato chip in the shade when everyone else is tan? To be told over and over my whole life how ugly I am and how sad it must be to be me?”
“You’re not ugly!” Kevin McDonald said.
“Maybe not to you—and not in the BDSM scene! I didn’t feel pretty until the first time I got all dressed up in a fancy corset and stockings because my first master bought them for me.” She sniffed a little. “I mean, not that he was much of a master, but I liked him and he thought I was hot because I was a damn sexy submissive; I love getting beaten and caned and tied up and used really hard! He loved me because I was hot to him, all of me, and he didn’t even have to say things, like I was sexy despite being fat, like some guys do.”

Angelina nodded. “Yeah, well, the scene is more welcoming to lots of body types.”
“So fine, I could get laid, I could get played with. But I’m an old-fashioned girl! I like the idea of being a stay-at-home mom. I want a man who thinks he’s my champion and my hero, who wants to take care of me. I want a man who responds to me when I want him, and someone who I can read, too.

“And you know what? My man likes the Zod books. Big fucking deal! He could like Star Trek or football or some stupid game online, but he likes Zod stuff. And when I talk this way and dress like this and say certain things and kneel a certain way, guess what? He goes crazy wanting me! He thinks I’m the hottest thing walking! It makes him happy and proud, and it makes him feel like he’s a stud, too.” She grinned suddenly, “Know why I do this? Because last night while the rest of the Zodians were getting all upset in the dungeons, we were back in our room getting it on. Because last night, I came six times! Six! Because he thinks it’s his duty as a Zodian master to make me ‘weak in the love furs,’ and so he figures that means getting me off so much I have to beg him to stop.

“So, if getting that from Phil means dressing up like this once in a while, and doing a hoochie-coochie dance, and talking like I’m retarded, guess what? That sure isn’t much different from wearing high heels and miniskirts and a ton of makeup, and pretending to care who wins the Super Bowl or the World Series, and millions of women do that. And because I go along with it, and let me be clear, I am perfectly happy to, Phil will be happy when I get pregnant and quite my job and we settle down together the way I always wanted. Because he’s not just my boyfriend, he’s my fiancé. So, yeah, that’s why I do it. The lifestyle I want, the man I love, and a ton of screaming, sweaty, panting, Oh-my-God-it-hurts-so-good orgasms.”

Laura Antoniou’s The Killer Wore Leather is enthusiastically—ardently!—recommended. This review has only scratched the barest surface of all the things that make it one of the most memorable and enjoyable reading experiences of the year. A book to be read, re-read and read again with ever-increasing pleasure. (And, as of this writing it’s understood a sequel may be in the works, too. I, for one, can hardly wait, even if it does end up making my job that much more difficult!)

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