Evander “Andy” Mills didn’t assume being a good cop made him immune from being a target. He just never thought he’d actually have the bad luck to get caught literally with his pants down when the San Francisco Police Department raids a gay bar. But that is exactly what happens. Andy is spared the typical bashing, but his career as a cop is done and he finds nothing but loathing from his former colleagues.
For a man whose entire identity was being a cop for the sole purpose of helping people, this harsh new reality saps Andy of his will to live. In fact, he is contemplating ending things when he meets Pearl Valez. Having been recently widowed, Pearl is convinced her significant other didn’t die in an accident, but has actually been murdered. Andy, knowing his policing career is completely kaput, struggles to care, until Pearl mentions she not only knows about his proclivities, but is part of the same family. In fact, she is reaching out to Andy because she needs a detective to investigate and feels only another queer person could take the death of her wife seriously.
Pearl whisks Andy away to Lavender House, her family estate nestled far away from the hustle and bustle of downtown San Francisco. The house is unlike anything Andy has ever seen, let alone experienced. It’s not the profusion of fragrant flowers growing across the grounds or the richly appointed rooms and competent staff. It’s the fact that Lavender House is a haven for Pearl and all her queer family. Henry, her gay son, is in a committed relationship with Cliff; the man is for all intents and purposes Henry’s husband, but officially his business secretary. Margo is his trophy wife, bringing a veneer of social acceptability to Henry, but actually in love with Elsie, who owns a queer night club in the city. The cook and gardener are a matched set and the butler is an older queen who keeps the whole show running. Of course, both family and detective are wary of each other at first. The family is worried about Andy sussing them out and reporting them all for lewd behavior. Andy, on the other hand, is concerned that one of them is a murderer. As his investigation continues, he finds each person in the household has varying degrees of plausible motive…but who would risk ruining this slice of heaven by committing an act as heinous as murder?
Lavender House is a whodunit mystery set in mid-century San Francisco. In the spirit of a police procedural, Andy methodically examines the scene of the crime, interviews the suspects (all conveniently living at Lavender House), and checks his hypotheses as he tries to piece together the truth. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting each member of the family and household. The supporting characters work as a marvelous ensemble; each relationship has clear facets that cleaved them together…or apart. Henry, for example, seems like a hard-ass business man, but he’s an utter simp for Cliff. Cliff likewise dotes on Henry, but is a terrible flirt and harbors a secret or two that could cause trouble for the family.
Until a few days before the story begins, Andy was content as a police detective. He managed to avoid raids mostly by hearing through the grapevine where his fellow officers would strike next. Andy never thought to share this information with others in his community. In hindsight, and juxtaposed with Lavender House’s small community fiercely protected by a pair of matriarchs, Andy realizes how selfishly he acted — and that he has a chance to try to remedy that. Andy’s very recent past as a police officer also adds extra layers of interest in the interpersonal relationships. Most people living at Lavender House view Andy with a high degree of skepticism. First, the sheer fact that he is a detective sets many characters on edge. Second, nearly everyone is convinced Pearl is grasping at straws by hiring someone on the suspicion that Irene died not by accident, but by murderous intent. But then, Pearl sees him as her champion and Andy finds an ally in Pat, the butler.
The best part of the engrossing cast is that they’re all likable or relatable in their own way. And that makes it all the more tantalizing to know that one of them is the murderer. There are a few times where Andy grows a bit wary of being at Lavender House. He stays as a guest and the further his investigation goes, the more convinced he is that Irene was, in fact, murdered. However, the only real tension between Andy and the others comes in the form of a dead rat being hidden in Andy’s bar of bath soap. It’s clearly a sign he’s not wanted, but it felt like the only one. I’m not sure if the suspense intentionally took a backseat to the interplay between Andy and the others, but I would have liked a bit more of it in the story.
Overall, Lavender House is an engrossing mystery. I loved the vivid depiction of life in the 1950s and Rosen incorporates working class and upper class queer characters. Andy made for a great narrator and, while all the clues point in the direction of the killer, it was his ability to interpret a situation to arrive at the right answer when the real suspects get narrowed down. If you like this time period or detective stories, or books about queer characters that include romance but don’t focus on it, then I think you’ll really like this book.