“This is the Katie Gilmartin’s first work of fiction, and she clearly drew on her academic work: interviews she conducted with lesbians about their lives in the 1940s and 1950s. That work paid off. Her future in fiction is bright.”
“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversations?'”
—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Alice was right, books with pictures are better than books without pictures.
Blackmail, My Love is an illustrated murder mystery and a good old fashioned noir. The linocut drawings pay homage to the hundreds of gay men, lesbians, transvestites, and other “fringe” folks who dared gather in 1951 San Francisco.
Josie O'Conner comes to town to locate her gay brother Jimmy because he didn’t call her on her birthday—and he always calls her. In an all too believable twist, the gay bars she finds to ask about Jimmy refuse to talk to her and indeed, deny all knowledge of him. Any acknowledgement is giving away power.
So Josie goes undercover and becomes Jo, dressing in men’s clothes because she gets more information that way than in heels. And truth to tell, she likes the look, the power, that passing as a man gets her. Of course, it’s against the law—one policeman tells her she’s breaking at least four laws, and he could throw in vagrancy, as well.
Jimmy was a cop before he went on a downward spiral. His career ended when he beat up another cop, but Josie senses the police, like the owners of the bars, know more that they are saying. She makes friends with a madam operating a brothel from inside the police department who slips Jo information—and sometimes a little more.
When Jimmy left the force he became a private dick, and when Josie sees his files, she understands his clients all have one thing in common: they are gay and being blackmailed over it. He’s trying to help his fellow friends of Dorothy.
The real locations that Katie Gilmartin uses act as a nice grounding mechanism. The Black Cat Cafe, the Fillmore, Italian North Beach, and Finocchio's, a dive so disreputable it's off limits to servicemen—so of course it’s at the top of the list for every man in uniform when shore leave includes San Francisco.
There are a delightfully drawn number of secondary characters showing the breadth and depth of people in the city in 1951. Two of the are the women that own Pandora's Box. One owner wants music and dance (albeit on the down low because they will never get a cabaret license), the other wants to keep the bar quiet, a refuge for the dykes who find it a homey, safe place. They come to an agreement: sometimes music, sometimes quiet.
Eventually Jo cracks the case and quiets part of her restless soul. I wish she had the power to see the future; I’m sure she would be amazed that only 53 years later the love that was so shameful one could be blackmailed over it would turn into marriage celebrations on city hall steps all over the country.
This is the Katie Gilmartin’s first work of fiction, and she clearly drew on her academic work: interviews she conducted with lesbians about their lives in the 1940s and 1950s. That work paid off. Her future in fiction is bright.