Richard Lipez, who reimagined the gay detective novel, dies at 83

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Richard Lipez, who reimagined the gay detective novel, dies at 83
FRONTMAN 2022 Electric acoustic guitar parts, 28 x 29 x 19 1/2 in/71.1 x 73.7 x 49.5 cm Courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York. Photo: Joy Whalen.

NEW YORK, NY.- Richard Lipez, the author of a series of crime novels centered on an openly gay detective who, unlike the one-dimensional depictions common in the genre in the 1980s and ’90s, is not a tortured soul or a freak but a relatable character who is content with his life, died March 16 at his home in Becket, Massachusetts. He was 83.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his husband, Joe Wheaton.

Under the pseudonym Richard Stevenson, Lipez wrote 17 mysteries in the series.

His protagonist, Donald Strachey, worked the underside of Albany, New York. He was named after Lytton Strachey, an early 20th-century English biographer; the name appealed to Lipez because Strachey, a gay intellectual, represented the antithesis of the stereotypical macho gumshoe.

Still, Lipez, known as Dick, respected the tough-guy tradition of the genre, and before he began writing a new book he would reread Raymond Chandler for inspiration.

He opened his first book in the series, “Death Trick” (1981), with Strachey observing his seamy patch of Albany:

“The sky over Jimmy’s Lounge was slate gray, and a cold wind chewed at the crumbling caulking around the windowpane next to me. Five weeks after Labor Day and already winter was sliding across the state from Buffalo like a new ice age.”

But Strachey is no Philip Marlowe. When his phone rings, he isn’t swilling rye from a bottle in his desk drawer or fending off dames. Rather, he’s reading The Gay Community News. Donna Summer’s disco anthems reverberate in his head. “Death Trick” takes place in 1979, before the AIDS crisis, and it includes a fair amount of carefree exuberance.

Many of Lipez’s themes, settings and plots revolve around gay issues. In “Shock to the System” (1995), Strachey goes undercover to investigate a gay conversion therapy group. “Strachey’s Folly” (1998) opens with the sleuth and his lover, Timmy, in Washington, D.C., at a display of the AIDS quilt, a vast memorial to people who have died of the disease. There, stitched into the quilt, they see the name of a man who they know is not dead.

An aficionado of detective fiction — Lipez was a freelance reviewer of mysteries for The Washington Post for three decades — he was irked that crime novels generally gave a lopsided view of gay characters, portraying them as misfits and villains who often met an unpleasant demise.

“The earlier depictions of gays and lesbians had been of pathetic wretches, ice pick lesbians, who were either the masochistic killers or the pathetic victims or blackmail victims,” he said in a 1998 interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

He exempted from his critique the work of Joseph Hansen, who was among the first mystery writers to create a major gay protagonist, though Lipez found Hansen’s sleuth, Dave Brandstetter, a bit dour. But otherwise, Lipez said, most portrayals of gay characters in crime fiction were “a lie, and I want to help correct that lie.”

In a form of literary payback, the bad guys in some of his early novels were heterosexual (a pattern he would later break). His gay characters were often witty and entertaining and found themselves in zany situations; they were also complex, empathetic and made mistakes.

“Don Strachey is a more ebullient character than Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter, and Mr. Stevenson has the skill to make him and the other characters in the novel thoroughly realized characters,” The New York Times Book Review said of “On the Other Hand, Death” (1984). “Skillful plotting carries the reader straight along. Highly recommended.”

Richard Stevenson Lipez was born Nov. 30, 1938, in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, a small town in the rural central part of the state. His mother, Helen (Seltzer) Lipez, was a homemaker. His father, Harris Lipez, co-founded a radio station, WBPZ, in Lock Haven in 1947 and became its manager as well as a prominent sportscaster. In high school, Dick ran a weekly jazz show at the station.

He attended Lock Haven State College, now Lock Haven University, where he majored in English and graduated in 1960. He started graduate studies in American literature at Pennsylvania State University but left to join the Peace Corps in 1962.

He taught English language and composition to students in Ethiopia, then moved to Washington, where he evaluated Peace Corps programs.

In 1968, Lipez married Hedy Harris, whom he had met in the Peace Corps, and they moved to Massachusetts, settling in the Berkshires. He became executive director of an anti-poverty agency and devoted himself to progressive causes; she became a nurse and was involved in several health and social service organizations. They divorced in 1995. She died in January.

Lipez and Wheaton met in 1990, when Wheaton was running a catering business and a restaurant, La Fête Chez Vous, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts; the eatery had previously been called the Back Room, the restaurant made famous by Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 song “Alice’s Restaurant.”

Lipez and Wheaton were among more than 70 same-sex couples who were married in towns across Massachusetts on May 17, 2004, the day the state became the first in the country to permit same-sex marriage.

In addition to Wheaton, who is now a visual artist, Lipez is survived by a daughter, Sydney Lipez; a son, Zachary; a brother, John; and a sister, Kathy Conklin.

Lipez wrote book reviews for Newsday in addition to The Washington Post, as well as editorials for The Berkshire Eagle and articles for Harpers, The Atlantic and Newsweek.

His first novel, “Grand Scam” (1979), which he wrote with Peter Stein and which was not part of the Strachey series, was the only one in which he used the name Lipez. Some of his Strachey novels were adapted into films for the gay cable channel Here!, but Lipez often said he was not especially happy with them.

The Strachey series is being republished by ReQueered Tales, a publisher trying to preserve the literary heritage of the LGBTQ community. Two new books are being published posthumously: “Knock Off the Hat,” a non-Strachey crime novel about a wave of gay-bashing in 1940s Philadelphia; and his 17th Strachey novel, “Chasing Rembrandt.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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