Affirmation: Soho Noir and Representation Matters

I believe you can’t control or choose your sexuality

February is LGBTQ+ history month in the UK, and so it seemed like a good time to talk about the first series of Soho Noir as a whole and the importance of LGBT representation in fiction and fact. For those coming to this for the first time, Soho Noir is a series of novellas by TS Hunter and published by Red Dog Press through the course of 2019. They follow the adventures of Joe and Russell as they make lives for themselves in London’s Soho, Joe after coming out and leaving home, Russell after being forcibly outed and facing the need to start afresh after his career in the police comes to a crashing end. Different generations, coming together. Oh and they solve a few crimes along the way. In particular crimes that the police are less interested in properly pursuing.

I’ve chosen now to post this as LGBTQ+ narratives in history are often overlooked, a certain major bookseller doesn’t have an LGBTQ+ history section in its (frankly huge) Manchester branch. We are under Social and Cultural studies, and there is a small selection of books.

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(In their defence, there are some in general history where they relate to other topics, and there is a pride table in the fiction room at the moment)

Despite this, there are a raft of amazing books available to educate yourself on LGBTQ+ issues, both in fiction and fact, if you know where to look and what books to search out – a quick google often yields results. Indie as usual is leading the way here, but credit where its due some mainstream publishers are starting to get the message too. Though for me, the mainstream is playing its part more in fiction than in fact, where they are succeeding in fact, they are relying on recognisable names to sell books. They are a business at the end of the day, and anything that increases visibility has to be a good thing.

Understanding these issues surrounding LGBTQ+ life is key in achieving true equality, which is why you won’t catch me using terms like ‘preference’ in this context. ‘Preference’ implies a choice where none exists. For a lot of LGBTQ+ people, myself included, making peace with this concept is a central element in coming out. You are who you are, and you should be free to be so authentically and without shame or fear.

I believe in Karma what you give is what you get returned

Let’s go back to last April, I and some other wonderful book bloggers responded to a shoutout from the lovely Dylan at Red Dog Press. They had signed a new LGBTQ+ novella series by the somewhat mysterious TS Hunter, and were looking to do a blog tour to launch the first book. Was anyone interested in taking a chance on a new and untested series? I was proud to be on this poster…

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That initial tour saw the beginning of a series that would come to play a major role in my reading and blogging year. As my reviews for all six books and this piece hopefully show, I believe it to be a superb cosy crime series with wonderful characters, great heroes and a villain you love to hate. But also, an important one. In my tour review for Tainted Love, I described the novella as:

“set squarely in the LGBT experience, our history runs through it.”

I felt that then, and I feel it now. It’s that sense of place and time that really underpins the series for me, issues of the time are explored but we also see a community reacting positively and getting on with living their lives. This is incredibly important in the increasing cannon of LGBT literature and entertainment. Crucially though, being gay isn’t all that defines Russell and Joe, its just one part of them.

The buzz created in April for Tainted Love lasted all year and saw the series successful to the point that Red Dog were able to chance their arm on the financial outlay required to do a limited-edition hardback collection. An absolute beauty of a book by the way.

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From responding supportively to a tweet from a publisher I was just getting to know, to a defining series of the year. You really do never know where a single supportive comment, gesture or commitment will take you.

I believe we place our happiness in other people’s hands

Positivity runs through Soho Noir and is something that is too often left out of the mainstream view unless it’s played for pure comic relief as in Will and Grace or Modern Family. Both of these are wonderful comedies in their own rights, and important milestones in representation, but they conform to a certain ‘safe’ view that the mainstream is comfortable with. Other successful shows that get to grips with the issues in an often-moving way such as Pose or Orange is the New Black play to the ‘suffering for your identity’ trope.

We see alternative or underground LGBT communities, but there is an element of pain in the drama. Hugely popular, and with good cause, Pose is one of the best things on TV right now and I keep on at my family to watch it, these shows achieve mainstream success as they have that element of suffering involved. Their success within the LGBTQ+ communities I think is more to do with seeing our history and lived experiences faithfully portrayed on screen in this kind of detail for the first time.

There is an episode in season two of Pose that deals with the very real impact of violence against Trans women of colour, it may be one of the most important episodes of television to air in the last twelve months. Its exceptionally moving and often funny, getting under the skin of community in late 1980s New York and the need at that time for family, while also being painfully relevant for today.

The mainstream in terms of entertainment, it would appear to me, is okay with us living our lives, so long as there is a price to be paid for our authenticity. This train of thought actually came about whilst watching RuPaul’s AJ and the Queen on Netflix recently. I read some of the press reviews, and to say they were less than kind would be an understatement. Said reviews also didn’t tally with my enjoyment of the show, and that made me wonder why that is? There are a couple of things that jumped out at me, first of all Mama Ru is at a stage in her career right now where the show is essentially critic proof. And professional critics don’t like that. Secondly, the realistic pain and suffering isn’t there. It’s true that Ruby (played by RuPaul) has been robbed of her life savings, and that has made her final tour really important as she tries to recoup the losses, but this is a McGuffin that drives the plot rather than more serious social commentary. In short, I really enjoyed AJ and The Queen as its just good fun. It’s full of interesting and varied LGBTQ+ characters, a fun story and great musical numbers. It’s a great ride, and hugely enjoyable, its massive fantasy fun.

I believe that family is worth more than money or gold

Joe’s story is a familiar one in the LGBTQ+ experience, a family by birth that doesn’t understand homosexuality, doesn’t understand that its not a choice but rather one part of who he is. For his family it becomes all of who he is and that makes it difficult for them to accept him. And so, he heads to London, where he finds his other family. Russell, the friend, mentor and father figure. Paul, barman and drag queen. Freddie, lawyer and friend to Joe, boyfriend to Russell. And countless other characters who bring the story and the world to life across the six books.

All of this is achieved without the need for ever slipping into a lecture, it’s simply a part of the narrative, the natural course that Joe’s life and experiences are taking him on. In essence, its just played as a normal setting for a story to unfold in. In normalising these sorts of worlds in storytelling, TS Hunter is playing an important role in bringing them into the light and showing people whose lived experiences may be different that there is nothing to fear here. Acceptance and understanding prevail throughout these tales, such a crucial message to be conveying.

I believe you don’t know what you’ve got until you say goodbye

I mentioned at the top of this piece that I felt Indie publishers are leading the way. To continue to do so they need to be supported by readers who are willing to spend a little money. Any purchase you make helps, and you might be surprised at what you get in return. You won’t realise just how important indie books are to a diverse reading list until we lose them. We can all play a part in that. Indie gave Joe and Russell a voice, gave Soho Noir a home. We mustn’t lose sight of that. As they are his stories, I think it’s only right to let TS Hunter himself have the last word on everything I’ve talked about here:

There is a rise in Indie Publishers, and those Indies don’t have the same Booker-seeking snobbery as some of the so-called stalwarts of the industry. It may also be that there is more of a call for truly diverse voices – be that race, sexuality, gender identity – and these stories find their homes in short hits, remaining defiantly outside the mainstream. I don’t know, to be honest, but I’ll tell you one thing, if they’re as much fun to read as they are to write, we’re all in on a bloody good secret that the book snobs will never know.

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The full set of my initial reviews for Soho Noir can be found here:

Tainted Love, Who’s That Girl, Careless Whisper, Crazy for You, Killer Queen and Smalltown Boy

All of the individual novellas and the two omnibus editions (paperback and limited-edition hardback) can be purchased direct from Red Dog Press. Support an indie publisher and LGBTQ+ representation, buy a book. You know it makes sense.

Affirmation and quoted lyrics (in bold and italics throughout) are by australian pop group Savage Garden.

 

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