The Perfect Gothic Lesbian Thriller?

The legendary queen of lesbian pulp talks about her favorite new book.

BY Ann Bannon

July 04 2013 6:42 PM ET UPDATED: July 04 2013 10:20 PM ET

Breathes there a reader who does not delight in going blissfully astray in a Gothic thriller? And they were not all written in the Yorkshire moors in the mid-19th century. Now comes a new take on an old genre that deserves to find an audience in the 21st. Lillian Q. Irwin has spiced her novel, Ghost Trio (Bold Strokes Books), with musical insights that make one yearn to put one’s ears to work as well as one’s eyes. This is clearly an author with a deep and affectionate knowledge of the world of classical music, as well as the emotional outliers that inhabit its wings.

Although the book has trio in the title, it is in many ways the story of shifting duets. The characters are sharply etched so we know who to root for, as in any good Gothic romance worth its dark shadows. Or we think we do, until the protagonist lets her heart run away with her for awhile. She is Leanne (Lee) Howe, a superb pianist, who has been living in New York for many years with her beloved partner, Devorah Manikian. Devorah is a mezzo soprano with a thrilling voice who seems always just on the verge of international stardom, but never seems to take the final step. And now time is running out — she’s approaching 40. This situation mirrors Lee’s: She is always the most gifted and sensitive of accompanists but has not been able to develop a solo career. She is teaching at the Juilliard School in New York.

The two women meet in at the Mozarteum Summer Academy in Salzburg, but Devorah is involved with a German countess then, and so their love affair takes three years to gain traction. But when it does, it’s powerful stuff. For 15 years, they share a home, pursuing their mutual passion for music, and building their lives together in an abundantly rewarding relationship. They teach, they travel, they perform in concert dates together in the summers. They live in an apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan and own a cozy old farmhouse in Connecticut on six acres of woodlands. And yet…something has faded from the early joy of their partnership. Were they too satisfied with their life? Taking one another for granted? It’s a common trap, even after years of happiness together. That brass ring of fame has enduring allure and can be a jealous rival.

Then fate intervenes in the person of Madame Annajean Eggers, a woman with an inherited fortune and a sharp ear for talented newcomers, especially women, and especially comely sopranos. At a party, she approaches Devorah with an irresistible proposal: Spend three months in San Diego, where I am developing a new opera company, and take the starring role in  my first production, Carmen. Devorah is eager and ready; Lee is not so sure. How much do they really know about this odd, commanding Mme. Eggers from California? Some unsettling rumors are floating about. But nothing will stop Dev. She’s late to the banquet of celebrity, and she isn’t going to miss what may be her last chance, even if it means disrupting her life with Lee.

And so Lee reluctantly yields and Devorah embarks for Southern California and her opera adventure with Annajean Eggers. But too soon comes tragic news: only a few months after departing New York, Devorah has died in a terrible fire at Eggerscliffe, Annajean’s dismal castle, “right out of Edgar Allen Poe,” on the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean north of San Diego. Miriam and Gerri, Lee’s friends in California, send Lee the newspaper clipping, confirming the death as accidental. And now she has come to visit the women and to see for herself the forbidding stone pile on the cliffs that was to have been the scene of Devorah’s triumph in Carmen.

Exploring the castle area on her own, Lee loses her footing and slides down a steep dune to the beach below. Exhausted and still grieving, she drifts off to sleep on the warm sand. But waking much later, and watching the gulls, she suddenly becomes aware of a human voice, unmistakable, singing a song dear to her and Dev: Brahms’s “Sapphic Ode.” She’s captured by the sound, both disbelieving it and needing to believe. Can it be possible that her Devorah still lives? Or is it only a hallucination, brought on by the medications she takes for the depression that has followed her partner’s death? From that moment, her life is seized with a single purpose: find Devorah, if indeed she lives; but if she has died, Lee must discover whether accident or evil design took her life.

Now the plot becomes double with toil and trouble. Staying with Miriam and Gerri, her two skeptical but affectionate friends, Lee sets out on her mission. Whose was the haunting voice that floated down from the castle to the beach upon her first arrival? She attends concerts at the castle, musical events in which she is coldly but correctly received by the chatelaine, Annajean herself, where many gifted and upwardly-striving young musicians yearn for Madame’s approval, where, perhaps, her wonderful Dev is being restrained against her will. Anyone might hold the key to the mystery — even the two strange, hostile Guatemalan women who serve Madame, one of whom never speaks at all. What might they know?

At one such musicale, Lee runs into an exquisite young singer for whom, in the past, she has served as accompanist — Lily Chan. They had hit it off musically then, and they find a remarkable sympathy yet again, as Lily shares all she knows about Annajean with Lee. And what she knows is not reassuring.

It is clear early on that Lily not only wants to make herself helpful to Lee, but that she has always regarded her through a scrim of romantic devotion. She has a lovely partner of her own, but they have fallen on rocky times for the present, so Lily throws herself heart and soul into supporting Lee’s hunt for answers to Devorah’s disappearance. Responding to Lily’s beauty and warmth, and out of her lonely isolation, Lee warms to Lily’s open admiration. And there are the doubts that had begun to develop between her and Dev before the interference of Annajean Eggers. But what if Dev is alive, as she wants urgently to believe? And what of Lily’s own partner?

Meanwhile, fresh stories of outrage and suspicion come to Lee from a variety of sources, firing her determination to discover the truth about what she has come to think of as, at best, Devorah’s disappearance, and at worst, her death at the hands of Madame Eggers. Despite playing accompaniment for some of Annajean’s musical protégées, despite vigils from the beach below the castle with her two old friends from Julliard, despite even a guided tour of the castle conducted by Madame herself, Lee cannot crack the mystery. It is going to take some more sophisticated sleuthing, and the addition of some rare and essential historical information to get to the heart of the matter. Enter Lily’s cousin, Tom Chan, an energetic and insightful young man, who gives the hunt a new direction.

This is a beautifully plotted and engaging tale that keeps you speculating until nearly the last few pages. The love affair between Devorah and Lee was deep and strong, but temptations lie everywhere. And what if one is on the wild goose chase that all one’s friends, not to mention all one’s good sense, tell one is the case? What if, in fact, Dev died in the fire? And what of sweet, love-struck Lily, a young woman overflowing with talent and appeal? 

Lee is virtually whiplashed by hope and despair. As the story progresses, the tension rises between two fierce-willed and determined antagonists: Lee, fighting to get at the truth, and Annajean, throwing her wealth and fury into concealing the many strange secrets of her life.

What revelations will the ugly old fortress, constructed so long ago by Annajean’s grandfather, yield up? Will it confirm Lee’s worst fears, that she has indeed been left alone in the world?  Is it perhaps just a dead end in a desperate quest? Or is there a glimmer of candlelight shining somewhere down that long, dark corridor?

The novel takes its title from Beethoven’s Opus 70 in D, called “The Ghost Trio” because of its eerie second movement, and of course, it mirrors the three women at the heart of the mystery. One of the pleasures of the story is the wide-ranging musical knowledge which informs it, from an affectionate look at the world of opera to all the other musical modes, and those who bring them to life for us. These are beautifully presented, not only with technical acumen, but in the colors of the deep feelings they arouse in us as listeners.

The plot necessarily brings us more of Lee’s anguish, her early joys, her gifts, and her wit, than it does of her lover’s; we have a chance to know her better as she takes center stage in pursuing her mission. But as she reminisces with her friends, as she daydreams and recalls her days with Devorah, we develop a moving awareness of Devorah’s sensuous beauty, her velvety mezzo, and her sparkling charm — of all, that is, that Lee has lost.

This is an ardent, fast-paced tale, as all good Gothics must be — a narrative by an author who can capture her characters in deft strokes and tell the tale with many a twist. No fan of music, romance, and mystery should miss it.

Ann Bannon is the author of a series of five lesbian pulp novels known as The Beebo Brinker Chronicles. Written from 1957 to 1962, the books were bests ellers when they were first released, have been published in five different editions and in several languages (recently as audio books at Audibile.com), and are often taught in women’s studies and LGBT studies courses. The books’ popularity and impact have earned Bannon the title of “Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction” as well as numerous awards for pioneering gay and lesbian literature. A play based on her books has been produced around the country and TV series is currently under development.

 

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