This is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.
As Adam Carpenter has just launched a second round of novels featuring openly gay private detective Jimmy McSwain (beginning with “Fresh Kill”), now seems the right time to chat a bit about the first five-book run in the series.
Jimmy McSwain is a private investigator operating out of Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. In a perfect world, Jimmy would be a cop just like his father before him. But our world isn’t perfect, and at age fourteen, Jimmy watched his father be murdered by an unidentified man holding up a local deli. When the NYPD stopped investigating his father’s death, Jimmy decided he’d take it upon himself as a private eye. Most of the time, Jimmy works cases for actual clients. In the first book, “Hidden Identity,” he’s hired to find missing heir Harris Rothschild, who had a falling out with his father over his “alternate” lifestyle. In book two, “Crime Wave,” he works pro bono to prove his sister’s boyfriend is innocent of murdering a man he was just seen kissing. In “Stage Fright,” a playwright receives threatening messages and the theater (at which Jimmy’s mother is head usher) hires Jimmy to find the culprit. “Guardian Angel” sees the holidays coming to NYC and Jimmy hired to protect and escort a tabloid darling. And in the finale of the first series, “Forever Haunt,” Jimmy takes on the case of an endangered mother and child and their missing husband/father.
Each case stands very much alone. Carpenter plays fair with the reader, planting all the clues necessary to solve each case along with various mcguffins, red herrings, and sub-plots for distraction from those clues. I love that each case is markedly different in tone and stakes from the others, even though they pretty all eventually hinge on a murder of some kind. Hey, it’s a crime/mystery series—most people come for the death and stick around for the reveal, I get that – but it’s nice to have each book not always start with the hero tripping across a murder scene. It’s also nice that even though Jimmy is an openly gay detective, he doesn’t take exclusively gay-oriented cases. Yes, it’s true of the first two books (the missing heir in book one is gay, as is the sister’s boyfriend in book two), but after that the cases don’t necessarily hinge on the victim being gay. That said, there are plenty of gay tertiary characters running around for Jimmy to interact with and to draw on for help in his cases – especially the hysterically flirtation drag queen Terry Cloth and her club full of lost souls finding themselves. (I think a book set exclusively in The Dress Up Club, crime-oriented or not, would be a fun side-project for Carpenter to pursue.)
If this were an old-style mystery series, with little in the way of character development or continuing sub-plots, you’d be able to just read these five books in any order you’d like. But this is the modern age of serialization, both on television and in books, and the Jimmy McSwain Files has an over-all arc that is best read in order. Because Jimmy has that drive to solve his father’s murder after all these years (fourteen, that is. He was fourteen when his father died, and he’s twenty-eight at the start of the first book), and each book progresses that sub-plot. Hints and clues, sometimes revealed as part of Jimmy’s main case and sometimes coming from unexpected places and not always at a good time, abound. There’s forward movement towards Jimmy finding his answers and there are set-backs and road-blocks. And yes, this first series ends with an answer for Jimmy. This is not one of those series where the author never quite gets around to given the haunted main character closure. (Needless to say, I’m intrigued to see how Jimmy handles life now that his driving issue has been resolved, in the next set of novels.)
Jimmy himself is flawed. He’s a damned good detective, but he has his blind spots. His singlemindedness regarding finding his father’s killer puts him, and his loved ones, in danger. In the middle book, the clues about what happened to his father distract him from the main case and vice-versa, to the point where Jimmy barely manages to solve the main case. He’s pretty near rock-bottom, and I still think it was a brave move for the author to make, allowing the reader to see the main character essentially falling apart. Of course, that gave the author room in the final two books in the series to bring Jimmy back to the capable detective he was earlier, and that arc is also satisfactorily handled.
There’s also a romance at the heart of these books: Jimmy’s on-again, off-again relationship with Captain Francis X. Frisano of the New York City Police Department. While the biggest problem initially seems to be that Frank is not “out” to his force because it might impede his upward movement in the department, it also turns out that Frank’s father worked with Jimmy’s – and perhaps knows things he’s not telling. This adds even more tension to whether this relationship will work out. There’s also, at various points, the return of the man who broke Jimmy’s heart before the series commences and a possible new love interest. But the sexual and romantic attraction between Jimmy and Captain Frisano is palpable and multi-faceted, and the reader can’t help but root for both men to get their heads out of their asses and just get together already. Note to the wary: Carpenter made his name writing erotica; there are sex scenes in these books, and they are fairly explicit. I personally think the books would have been perfectly fine without the sex scenes, but Carpenter knows his audience and gives them what they want.
I mentioned the sort of tertiary-level recurring characters, but I really need to talk about Jimmy’s main supporting cast: his widowed mother (still working at the same theater she’s been at since before her husband died and at which she often convinces her children to help out as ushers); his sisters (one a lawyer, one at loose ends and pregnant in the later books); his Uncle Paddy (who owns the bar above which is Jimmy’s office); and Jimmy’s mentor (his late father’s now-retired partner). Even in the first book this is a well-drawn and complicated supporting cast, and they each have something of a sub-plot arc running throughout the series. But they really get moments of their own towards the end of the run that feel real and satisfying and give Jimmy a world outside of work to complicate his life. One of my favorite aspects of each book is the time Jimmy spends with his mother and siblings around the dining room table, followed by the times Jimmy gets encouragement from his otherwise sort of old-school uncle. And of course, there’s always the shadow of Jimmy’s father: if he’d lived, would he be proud of who Jimmy is? Would he have been accepting of Jimmy’s homosexuality? It’s a question Jimmy can’t ever get an answer to. He can only hope. And I think it’s great that this series makes the point that even when we get the answers we’re looking for (as each of Jimmy’s clients does by the end of each book, and as Jimmy ultimately does at the end of the series), we never get all the answers we need.
Read the Jimmy McSwain Files if you’re looking for: a series lead whose homosexuality is not his only character trait; fair-play mysteries; solid character arcs for the main and secondary characters; a variety of types of cases that don’t fall into formula; and oh yeah, some sex.