Review: The Secret Tunnel by James Lear

Handsome, muscular Edward “Mitch” Mitchell is back in this steamy send-up of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express, traveling from Edinburgh to London for a reunion with his ex, “Boy” Morgan. All aboard the Flying Scotsman for a ride that’s anything but smooth, as Mitch discovers his fellow travelers include Belgian power bottom Bertrand, sleazy starlet Daisy Athenasy and her butch publicist, Peter Dickinson. Add to the recipe a group of kilt-wearing soldiers, some very accommodating railway workers and a dead body tumbling out of the toilet, ant you have a magical mix of comedy, mystery and non-stop sex.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

The time: Winter 1928. The place: Aboard the Flying Scotsman as Edward “Mitch” Mitchell makes his way from Edinburgh to London to attend the christening of Harry “Boy” Morgan’s firstborn child, a daughter, for whom Mitch is to be the godfather. The events: murder, madcap mayhem, amateur sleuthing, silliness, and sex. Lots and lots of sex.

And that, in a nutshell, is The Secret Tunnel. It is not exactly a sequel to The Back Passage, but author Lear does bring back two characters, Mitch and Boy, and introduces a whole cast of colorful newcomers, including Bertrand Damseaux, who is supposed to vaguely remind readers of Hercule Poirot, just like The Flying Scotsman is supposed to remind us of The Orient Express. In other words, Lear uses lots of references to classic mysteries to set the mood.

When the story opens, we learn that Mitch has graduated from Cambridge and is now living in Edinburgh with his lover, Vince, and is in the final stages of completing his medical training. Mitch purports to be deeply in love with Vince, but that doesn’t stop him from having lustful thoughts about Boy Morgan, train conductors, porters, and lords, all before he is barely 18 steps away from his front door. Events have conspired so that Vince is unable to accompany Mitch on his journey; at first, Mitch is annoyed but being an optimistic sort, he remembers the adage, “Out of sight, out of mind,” and decides that having fun on his trip will be his number one objective.

He doesn’t waste any time, getting friendly with Arthur the porter, the mean train conductor, and the aforementioned Bertrand; then all of a sudden, Zut, alors! A body shows up in the first-class lavatory. Mitch is thrilled. Now, he gets to play Sherlock Holmes, Jr., too — his favorite hobby, second only to sexual activity in all its forms.

As a sleuth, Mitch’s primary detective tool seems to be his tool, which he uses to get men to open their mouths – and various other bodily crevices – to spill the beans. He isn’t terribly discriminating: even men who don’t have beans to spill get the treatment. At about the halfway point of the book, the story gets confusing. Why exactly is Mitch having sex with this guy? What exactly is he hoping to learn? Who is this guy, anyway?

The sex, fun as it is, becomes formulaic. I almost felt like the author had a checklist at his side to make sure every possible fantasy and fetish was covered. Sex with a man in uniform? Check. Sex with a man (or two) in a kilt? Check. Sex with lots of men at once? Check. Sex with Mitch tied up? Check. Sex with Mitch tied up and drugged? Check. You get the point.

I only kept reading because Lear is a good writer. The story is funny and fast and the writing is humorous, although the plot is totally implausible to the point of being preposterous. I got swept along in the current and kept flipping the pages, even if by the end I was flipping the pages to the point that I was mostly just skimming the words.

I read this back-to-back with The Back Passage and maybe that was a mistake because I kept comparing the two. The writing wasn’t any different and I don’t think the sex was any different either – but Mitch as a character was, and that was unsettling for me. In The Back Passage he was a college student visiting an English country estate for a holiday weekend (which happened to include finding a body in a closet). In The Secret Tunnel, school days are over and Mitch is supposed to be settling down to a career and a life with his beloved life partner. Boy, too, is married and a father and that gives Mitch momentary pause – but only momentary before he thinks about what he wants to do (and eventually does) with his former lover and friend. While I didn’t expect Mitch to become totally monogamous to the point of being a prude, his promiscuity with wild abandon was a tad too far to the other extreme for me to be totally comfortable with – especially since Mitch himself had some ambivalence about what he was doing.

Even more unsettling is the fact that Mitch realizes that what he likes best – to have sex with men – is an illegal activity. It comes up at the beginning: Mitch and Vince wear pajamas because they worry that the landlady might walk in and the sight of two naked men sleeping together could be grounds to call the police. Huh? That’s not the only instance. Mitch worries about drawn blinds, overheard cries of passion, and visible erections, any of which might have him hauled off to the clink and hung as a sodomite (never mind that the last time a sodomite was hung in England was 1835). Since the story is totally absurd, anyway, this slice of reality was intrusive and jarring and I am not sure it added to the narrative.

Would I recommend this book? It depends on what you want to read. I know many who consider Lear’s works to be “one handed novels” and if what you want is well written soft-core gay porn, it certainly fills the bill. On the other hand (excuse the pun!), if you are looking for a well written historical fiction story with a homoerotic subplot, I can think of many others I would suggest before this. While I am glad I discovered Lear as an author and I certainly enjoy Mitch as a character, I am not chomping at the bit for the third installment of this series, if one is planned.

Author’s website

Published by Cleis Press, Inc., publication date October 2008

ISBN: 978-1-57344-329-6

Buy: Amazon UK Amazon USA

2 Responses

  1. Correction on the post’s subject. It should be “The Secret Tunnel,” not “The Secret Passage.”

  2. Yes, thanks for noticing that. Erastes, can you make the correction? Thanks in advance, L.

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