Book Review: Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen

Title: Lavender House
Author: Lev AC Rosen
Publisher: Forge Books
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A delicious story from a new voice in suspense, Lev AC Rosen’s Lavender House is Knives Out with a queer historical twist.

Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret—but it’s not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they’ve needed to keep others out. And now they’re worried they’re keeping a murderer in.

Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept—his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand.

Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He’s seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn’t extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy—and Irene’s death is only the beginning.

When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.

Lavender House opens with a desperate man in a bar having one last drink while contemplating suicide — before a broad in bright colors walks in.

She has a deep, sharp voice, and it cuts through the fog of drunkenness in my mind. She’s right out of a movie — she could ask me to kill her husband any second now.

In this noir-tinged murder mystery set in 1950s San Francisco, there’s no place to hide if you’re queer, and that’s especially true if you’re a cop. Our main character, Andy Mills, has just been fired from the SFPD after being caught in the act during a police sweep of gay bars. Broken, beaten, and with no hope, he’s having one last drink while considering throwing himself into the Bay, when Pearl walks into the bar.

Pearl is a classy older woman with an aura of money, and as Andy listens to her pitch, he learns something truly shocking: Pearl refers to her long-time companion Irene as her “wife”. How can two women possibly live a domestic, committed life together without persecution? Soon, Andy learns much more: Irene is the head of the Lamontaine family, who own a fabulously successful soap company known for its lush floral scents and secret formulations. With the Lamontaine money, Irene and Pearl are able to live a rich, free life within their secluded, gated estate in Marin, along with their son Henry, Henry’s partner Cliff (who poses publicly as Henry’s secretary), Henry’s wife Margo (again, a public-facing role), and Margo’s lover Elsie, who runs one of the most successful queer clubs in San Francisco, sheltered by generous payoffs to the police.

Henry turns and kisses him on the forehead. And everyone acts like it’s the most natural thing in the world. No one even seems to notice it happen. I’ve seen affection like that in the clubs before, sure. But here, in morning light, at a breakfast table, it’s like they’re so bright it makes my eyes hurt.

The Lamontaine’s idyllic life is devastated, however, by the event that’s brought Pearl to Andy: Irene is dead, and Pearl suspects murder. While the rest of the household believe the death was an unfortunate accident, Pearl thinks there’s something more sinister at play, and she invites Andy back to the mansion to investigate. As he takes up residence in a guest room and gets to know the family, Andy uncovers many secrets, but also sees both the freedoms and limitations of the family’s isolated lives, and considers whether he might ever find a way to live a freer, truer life himself.

There’s so much to love about Lavender House! First, the murder mystery itself is well developed, with an intriguing set-up, plenty of clues and red herrings, and a cast of characters who all seem like good people, until we’re forced to see other sides of them and wonder what lies beneath the friendly surfaces. This is a manor house mystery — an isolated, grand house, with each resident a suspect, and a detective in their midst, who may end up in grave danger himself. It’s quite deliciously built, as we get to know and like the various characters — but like Andy, we need to also look beyond the smiles and sympathetic conversations and to hold ourselves at a bit of a distance while we assess which of these people is a murderer.

Beyond the mystery itself, there’s also the historical setting and the depiction of gay life in the 1950s. The era shines through via the author’s descriptions of the bars and alleys and criminal life, as well as the music, clothing, and cars. But it’s the narration of Andy’s inner turmoil, the constant threat of discovery and the very real danger of beatings and abuse that give this book such a gritty, sad, realistic feel.

Even amidst the seemingly open life of the Lamontaine house, Andy is constantly aware of the redwood trees that line the drives, looking like prison bars, and the heavy gates that must be kept locked to keep the world out — and by extension, to keep the family locked within their private haven, unable to leave without putting on masks to shield them from the world.

As long as the world out there stays the same, a paradise like this keeps you in as much as it keeps you safe.

There’s so much sorrow in Andy’s experiences of living a secret life, his attempts to keep himself safe and his shame at not having done more to help others like him, his knowledge that the camaraderie he once experienced on the police force was erased in an instant the moment his true self was exposed, and the physical danger he faces simply by being spotted by someone who might recognize him. Through Andy’s investigation, we also learn more about the backgrounds of the various other inhabitants of Lavender House, and it’s a sad litany of secrets, shame, family disgrace, and abuse.

The murder is, of course, tied up neatly by the end of the book, and I thought the resolution was quite clever and not at all obvious. Andy’s life seems on the verge of a new beginning, and it’s wonderful to be able to leave him with a sense of hope. Life in the 1950s hasn’t magically changed, but he at least has options and a vision for how his life might be better. It felt as though the ending might be leaving the door open for additional mysteries starring Andy, and that would be amazing! Here’s hoping this is just the first in a continuing series.

I’m not at all surprised that I ended up loving this book. The author, Lev AC Rosen, has written some fabulous books already, including two gems that I think deserved much more attention than they got (All Men of Genius and Depth — go look them up and check them out!!). I haven’t read his YA novels yet, but they’re on my TBR list. In any case, Lavender House seems to be generating lots of buzz and is getting a big, splashy release, so I hope this is the book that will finally provide this talented author with a much bigger audience.

Lavender House is a fast-paced, intriguing mystery with a deep inner core of emotional impact and sensitivity, and I loved the sharp way the characters’ experiences enhanced the murder genre aspects of the story. This is a terrific new release for October — don’t miss it!

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