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A New Mystery Describes Secret Gay Lives in Post-World War II America


John Copenhaver's new novel Dodging and Burning weaves a fanciful tale of war, murder, and the closet. Read an exclusive excerpt below.

Dodging and Burning is a mystery set in 1945 about a gay World War II photographer and the photo he takes of a murdered woman's body. When the corpse goes missing, the photo is the only proof of her murder. When he shows the photo to Bunny Prescott, the debutante who's in love with him, and Ceola, the kid sister of his lover who is missing in the Pacific, the story becomes as much about the photographer as the subject of the photo.

Through the first part of the novel, Bunny becomes increasingly suspicious of protagonist Jay. Particularly his motivations for showing her the images of the murdered woman, Lily. Bunny discovers a clue that takes her to a gay bar in Washington, D.C., called Crocodile Tears, searching for answers. This excerpt begins as she enters the bar with Tim, who she met moments earlier on the street.

The door flung open and a puff of smoke escaped, trailed by laughter. A tall, horsey woman, wrapped in a horrible bright purple evening gown, emerged. She recognized my new friend and rushed forward, giving him a hug. The little man disappeared into a blob of purple organza and then reappeared again, extricating himself from her gossamer cape, taking a moment to complain she had ruffled his freshly pressed blazer.

"Oh, Timmy," she cooed. "Wrinkles make you more rugged. Too much polish on and the boys won't want to rough you up."

"This is my friend . . ."

"Bunny," I supplied.

"Bunny," Tim repeated.

"Hop! Hop!" The purple horror screamed with joy, her large mouth gaping to reveal cigarette-stained teeth.

"She's come to see the show," Tim said.

"Little Bunny better hop-hop on inside."

"Indeed," Tim said.

The purple horror stepped aside, motioning for us to enter, her diaphanous plumage rippling and fluttering with each exaggerated gesture. Mellow guitar, a Reinhardt-esque tune of some sort, drifted across the room through the haze. I followed Tim down a few stairs, dropping below the veil of smoke.

The space was a deep, buttressed basement, supported by two or three large brick pillars. The windowless walls were painted a wine red and lined with booths. Much later in my life, the Roman underground cistern of Istanbul would conjure memories of this place. The city's cavernous architecture and lush darkness, although much grander, had a similar and equally disconcerting atmosphere, like being in the belly of a whale. In the center were round tables of odd sizes, set with mismatched chairs and lit with red votives. At the far end of the room, a thick, velvety curtain was pulled back, revealing a thin, well-dressed black man, perched on a stool and playing the guitar. His eyes were closed, deep in the moment of the music. At the back of the room stood a makeshift bar, cluttered with stools and the greatest number of patrons.

"Does this look like your sort of place?" Tim said.

"I'm looking for someone."

"Anyone in particular?"

"Lily Vellum."

"That name rings a bell. I remember hearing something about a Lily a few months ago, but I never met her."

"What about Teddie B.?"

"Why are you looking for him?"

"I'm a friend of a friend."

"Oh, you'll get to meet Teddie B., all right. He's crooning his dreadful repertoire tonight. Just hang around. I'll bet my toes he's the next act. God save us if he's doing Dietrich."

Remembering another name from Lily's letter, I said, "Do you know a George?"

"Which one do you want? George Abernathy? George Wills? Georgie Goodbottom?--although I seriously doubt that's his real name. George Gershwin? George Washington? You'll have to be more specific." I was bewildered, which he clearly saw, because he said, "Darling, why don't you have a seat at an empty table and let Timmy find a drink for you. What do you want?"

"I'm fine. No need to--"

"Darling, name the drink."

"An old-fashioned."

"Whatever your heart desires." He clucked and left me.

I found a small table near a pillar and sat down. My eyes were beginning to adjust to the submarine blues and ruby reds of the room, and I discovered there were several groups of patrons that I could observe without seeming conspicuous. Around the table nearest me, three young men sat together, craned over their drinks, whispering and laughing and smoking. Occasionally, one of the men would extend a slender arm over the center of the table and tap ashes into an empty glass. The gesture had a certain irreverent grace about it, a feminine haughtiness I had never observed in men, except perhaps at my birthday by the lake. Jay had seemed so different that night ...

The table on my right, at the edge of my peripheral vision, was half-submerged in darkness, and in that restless shadow I saw two shapes conjoined, moving against one other, in soft, uneven undulations. I stared for a moment, uncertain what I was looking at. Then the two shapes separated and assumed the more recognizable forms of two sturdy, square-shouldered men. One of the men was still leaning forward slightly, his hand gripping the other man's thigh. My heart rate increased, and I turned away. Before I could process what I had seen, Tim was standing over me, dangling my drink precariously between his thumb and forefinger.

"Here, darling. Take your drink. I hate the condensation on my palms."

As he sat, he nodded toward the two men. "It looks like Ben has a new boy tonight. They simply worship him. That's only because his favorite activity doesn't require conversation." He took a swig of his drink. "Don't mind me, that's just jealousy talking."

"I don't understand," I sputtered.

"Of course you don't." He smiled.

"Is he . . . ?"

"A fairy. Yes, darling. As am I." He tipped his glass to me. "Cheers!" He took a deep swig, swallowed, and took a moment to absorb the alcohol. "You really don't know where you are, do you?"

"I do. It's just . . . I've never been to a place like this."

"Are you a lessie?"

"A what?"

"A dyke. There are better places I can recommend if you are."

"I don't -- No!"

"You look pale, darling. Have your drink. You'll feel much better."

I picked up the tumbler, removed the thin orange slice -- which Tim snatched from my fingers and ate -- and took a gulp of the tangy liquid. After the alcohol settled, I took another, more ladylike sip, and spoke: "I'm here because someone I care about has a connection to this place and to the people I mentioned to you."

"Teddie B. and this Lily person."

"That's right."

"What sort of connection?"

"I'm not sure. The more I discover the less I understand."

"You're beginning to intrigue me."

"Is that a good thing?"


Excerpted from Dodging and Burning by John Copenhaver, published by Pegasus Books. Reprinted with permission. All other rights reserved.

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