Welcome one and welcome all to my little beardy blog for my stop on the blog tour for T. S. Hunter’s ‘Killer Queen’, the 5th entry into the soon-to-be-classic series of Soho Noir novellas. So, I hear you cry, what has Toby cooked up for us all this time around? Do you need to have read the first four books to be able to enjoy this one? Does he serve up more of that jazz that has entertained those who have read those books, but remaining accessible to those new to the series? With the first book, Tainted Love, released back in July, we’ve had nearly one year of love for this series as it heads towards its conclusion in December. But for now the show must go on and so let me entertain you, I hope, with my review. Small disclaimer: if you want to remain totally spoiler-free, may I suggest you don’t try so hard to read the blurb and main review as there may be some small spoilers within. Skip ahead to the author photo and read the summary instead.
First up, some blurb:
It’s 1988. Soho is enjoying a mild summer after a turbulent political year for LGBT rights. While working as an assistant to a successful Theatre Director, Joe Stone finds himself unwittingly embroiled in another murder investigation.
Lexi Goode, a young, up and coming actress has her bright future cut short when she is found murdered in her exclusive top floor apartment in the posh end of Soho. Knowing that the police are as racist as they are homophobic, Joe and Russell inevitably take it on themselves to investigate what happened to the young woman.
Along the way they discover illicit liaisons, a string of admirers, a secret life that was helping to pay for the glamorous lifestyle no young actress should have been able to afford. But who would want to kill Lexi?
Finding the answer to that question puts Joe in mortal danger and a young police officer in an awkward position.
(P.S. As this book is named after a certain Queen song, can you find all 100-ish Queen song titles hidden in this review? Ok, some are not so hidden and tweaked a bit, but you get a great big beardy smile and blown kiss if you do 😘)
And so, as the night comes down on this series, we arrive at the penultimate, yes that is correct you read me correctly, the penultimate book in the Soho Noir series that began all the way back in the summer with Tainted Love, then continued on to Who’s That Girl before riding the wild wind into Careless Whisper and crashing headlong into Crazy For You (click on each title for my reviews if you should be so inclined. Go on, incline already, I’ll wait!).
So what is occurring this time around to get me all juiced up and going slightly mad for this series so far? Does this title have the staying power to keep this series alive? Was it all worth it, I hear you cry?
Well dear friends, I have to say that it is a resounding yes! Hurrah, gimme the prize and let’s throw a party *glitter gun*
*cough….splutter….cough* Argh, see what a fool I’ve been? I forget that that stuff gets everywhere. Yes, even there, so hang on in there whilst I find my blunt tweezers (I really don’t want to tear it up like last time; some lessons are learnt the hard way 😳), and extract some glitter from my bu… err, you don’t need to see this! Turn away please…..
Okay, you can all come back now you cool cats, and we can start the review propers.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading these books before then don’t lose your head because they can be comfortably read as standalones. Toby (the ‘T’ in T.S.Hunter. It is still unknown what the ‘S’ is for, but I’m still going with ‘Stealth’. Or possibly ‘Scandal’. Toby Stealth Hunter, or Toby Scandal Hunter, have a certain ring to them, no? I like the inference of innuendo, don’t you? No? Oh, just me then? Suit yourselves, who needs you anyway?), ensures that nothing is spoilt for you and I, although they are referenced, of course.
In Killer Queen, we find Joe Stone, The hero of our series, working as a director’s assistant to Cameron Beattie, an ambitious man of 39 or so, at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End. Cameron is directing a production of (insert play here when I know what it is. Dammit, I forgot to ask, or look it up, and now this little insert makes me look silly. But it’s late in the day to worry about it now *face palm emoji*), that stars the self proclaimed ‘National Treasure’ Hattie Duval in the lead role of Lady Earnshaw. However, due to Hattie being ill, Lexi Goode, her understudy, takes on the role for one night, and in a performance made in heaven, garners herself not one, not two, not even three, but four standing ovations. To say she was a success is an understatement and she comes off of the stage doing all right and awash with the adoration of the cheering audience. Lexi’s parents are in the audience too, given the best seats by Cameron, and it’s heaven for everyone as they bask in Lexi’s success. In fact, Cameron is so happy with her that he offers her the lead role in his next production. For Lexi, life is real and it’s a beautiful day.
But of course, this wouldn’t be a Soho Noir book if there wasn’t an air of mystery about the unfortunate victim, and Lexi is hiding a secret from everyone; something that she fears would give her parent’s a sheer heart attack if they found out. It’s a secret that funds her expensive Soho apartment and prevents her from sleeping on the sidewalk on her meagre supporting actor pay. Is Lexi Goode not the sweet lady that she appears to be? Hmmmm *pondering face emoji*
Of course, things go decidedly tits up when Lexi fails to show up for a rehearsal and Joe is dispatched by Cameron to her apartment and bring her into work. Cameron is a man who likes his staff to be dead on time, tolerates no back chat, and to whom tardiness just isn’t tolerated. Joe arrives at her swankeroo flat (of course he wonders how on earth she can afford this place and isn’t living in some bijou pad such as himself), when he discovers the young actress all dead, all dead on the floor, with a single stab wound to her chest (or her “chess” or “chesses” as my mother used to call it. I’ve no idea why so don’t ask. My mum, she’s a bit mad, the swine). After the initial shock of discovering Lexi apparently murdered, Joe calls his friend and ex-police detective Russell Dixon. Russell and Joe were brought together via the tragic death of Joe’s childhood friend, and the first love of his life, Chris Sexton, way back in book one. Since then they have found themselves forming a kind of magical partnership and have proved to be an adept team at solving the kind of crimes that the police of the 1980s couldn’t give three shits for.
In case you were not aware (and why should you be if you haven’t read this series before or cannot be arsed with reading the blurb up top there), this series is set in the mid-to-late 1980s. 1980s Britain was a very different place to what it is today. Institutionalised homophobia (and racism) were common place and it is this that Russell fell foul of, costing him his job and livelihood. It was easier to stay in the closet if you were in a position, or profession, of trust such as the police, teaching or the fire service. It wasn’t so easy to fight from the inside in those days, but fortunately the tide was turning and more enlightened times would be coming soon. Throughout the series Toby has highlighted the issues of the time, such as the rise of HIV and AIDS, and the passing of Section 28 (which was finally repealed in 2003, nevermore to darken the statute books), and in Killer Queen he throws in the police’s attitudes to racism too. Lexi is of mixed race, her father being Caribbean, and this means that the investigating detective assigned to her case has very little time for it, especially when he finds Joe and Russell at the scene.
Who could this unscrupulous detective be? Of course, it’s the great king rat himself, Detective Simon Skinner. This walking turd in human form is like a man on the prowl when it comes to poor Joe and Russell. In a previous book he tried to put out the fire of Russell’s new relationship with his boyfriend Freddie Gillespie, but it’s funny how love is and they refused to play the game, and thus he was sussed and thwarted. Now both Russell and Freddie are in the process of compiling evidence against Skinner in an attempt to bring him down. Some day, one day he’ll get what’s coming to him. Either way, bigots like him will always be the loser in the end, and good riddance. We’re all waiting for the hammer to fall on his career.
Lexi’s death baffles both Joe and Russell. She appeared to have no enemies and was loved by everyone she met, so who could’ve killed this tenement funster so coldly and without apparent motive? And what will her parents think when they discover that their lily of the valley wasn’t quite the innocent daughter they believed her to be?
I think that’s all you really need to know about the story right now. Killer Queen, as with all of the books in the series, is a novella stretching to a lengthy 120 pages or so, so it is very easy to get carried away and start revealing too much. They say that too much love can kill you, well so can revealing too much plot, or so I’ve heard. I don’t need the Spoiler Police coming soon and stealin’ me away. For one thing it’s a hard life in Spoiler Jail; they make you read the complete works of Jeffery Archer, twice, and then write an essay on them entitled “Why I truly believe that Jeffery Archer is the most underrated literature author of our time”, and in only seven days. An impossible task I reckon, but I guess one will do anything when one is under pressure not to go stone cold crazy in prison. Who will save me if I’m imprisoned? I’ll just have to hope that I’ll be in good company and I’m not too long away 😬
As I’ve already mentioned, in Killer Queen we are reunited with our two protagonists Joe Stone and Russell Dixon. After being thrust together by the murder of their mutual friend Chris Sexton, over the course of the series their friendship has grown and blossomed into something true and believable. They have fast become soul brothers, with each often pre-empting the other’s thoughts and actions in the course of their investigations. Both characters have grown over the course of the books: Joe from the wide-eyed innocent country lad, who found that leaving home ain’t easy, but once he had and discovered the bright lights and gay friendly pubs and bars of Soho, he realised that he could become the person that he truly was. Coming to London was no flash in the pan decision, but once the dust had settled on Chris’s death he thought, “now I’m here, I think I’ll stay around”, and Soho has become his true home. Russell was in the closet for much of his adult years, but thanks to that death on two legs, Detective Skinner, his career in the police force was cut short in an egregious set-up that won Skinner no friends, but sadly meant that Russell had to quit. But on meeting Joe, he has grown into a much more confident, out gay man, as his relationship with good old lover boy Freddie has shown. Together, and through the regular Frock Nights at the Red Lion pub that they frequent, they help to support the Campbell Centre, a resource, help and treatment centre for those suffering from HIV/AIDS, that Chris helped to set up before his death.
We are also reunited, albeit briefly, with series favourites Patty Cakes (aka Paul) host of the aforementioned Frock Shows, Ron the landlord of the local boozer The Red Lion (fast becoming a character in itself; a place where friends will be friends and enemies will be shown the door), and his son Scott (aka Miss Terri). This time around we are also introduced to Mike, a uniformed policeman with no love for that liar Skinner, and who could maybe become somebody to love for young Joe? We shall have to wait and see. Another new character this time around is Anton, the owner of Betty’s, a small florist in the heart of Soho. Anton is a very animated and flamboyant man whose body language reminded me of the character Albert Goldman, played by Nathan Lane, In The Birdcage. It would be great if we got to meet him again before the series ends.
Although each of the books in this series are short, Toby none the less manages to squeeze every ounce of drama and tension from his story. They move along at a breakneck speed, like a peloton of professional bicycle racers whizzing past your eyes, but not so fast as to sacrifice story and character. There have been some casualties along the way; we haven’t heard about Joe’s family back home for a while now, but there is only so much that you can tell in such a short page count, it would be a miracle if he could squeeze everything in, so that really is nit-picking.
One of this series strengths is its sense of community. In my review for Tainted Love I queried the use of the word ‘cosy’ in the genre ‘cosy crime’, but since then I’ve been drawn back to the light and I can see why it is called that. Toby has managed to create a sense of place and community amongst his characters and locations that reminds me of Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City books. As those books are amongst some of my very favourites, this is no bad thing at all.
Killer Queen is yet another excellent episode in the Soho Noir series. It packs in story, character and mystery into its 120 pages that many other books struggle to do in 300. I truly adore this little series of books. They always manage to bring me out of my melancholy blues when a new book arrives. They have truly hijacked my heart and I’m genuinely sad that the last book, Small Town Boy, is just around the corner. When he was young, I like to think that Toby had a dream, a dream of sweet illusion. A glimpse of hope and unity, and one vision of a sweet series of books that would highlight the issues that were important to him growing up gay in the 1980s, but at the same time would be accessible to everyone. Has he succeeded? Has he managed to breakthru the barriers of prejudice, expectations and genre restrictions? I truly think he has. This book, along with its bookshelf buddies, are highly entertaining, bursting with charm, warmth, character and story. Toby draws you into his world with an ease that belies the fact that this is only his fifth published book.
Killer Queen easily upholds the standards of this series so far and with one more book to come it is difficult to predict a misfire and the standard slipping now. It’s in the lap of the gods as to how the series will conclude (well, it’s in the lap of Toby, but he is the god of this world he created, so it fits), but I cannot wait. As much as I don’t this series to end I’m impatient and I want it all and I want it now!
If this review has inspired you to read this book, or in fact to buy the entire series (Hey, if you can’t beat them, right? Also, thank god it’s Christmas because they’d make a perfect present for a son and daughter, niece and nephew, grandson and granddaughter, or from a father to son, right?), you can take action this day and purchase your copy of Killer Queen directly from Red Dog Press. So do the millionaire waltz over to their website at the link below:
Or you can spread your wings over to either of these booksellers and pick up a copy there:
Maybe you are tired of machines and want to go back to humans, and therefore you can order your copy, or copies, from your favourite bricks and mortar store. They’re perfect for lazing on a Sunday afternoon with. Lovely.