Don’t Ask, Don’t Kill 

Smart, moody thriller from Christopher Rice is his straightest—and most provocative—book yet

by Michael Ray TaylorRice's fourth novel, Blind Fall, is a book that proves “exciting fiction can be serious fiction.”

When his second novel, The Snow Garden, was published in 2002, Christopher Rice, son of famed vampire novelist Anne Rice, said he didn’t want to be slapped with the labels “mystery novelist” or “gay novelist.” Which is, of course, exactly what happened to the young writer, who turned 30 March 11. Each of his first three books featured gay protagonists out to solve a mystery; all became New York Times best sellers. Now, with his fourth novel, Blind Fall, Rice may be poised to move beyond easy categorization and into the mainstream. It’s a book that proves, as he suggested in a video interview last fall, “exciting fiction can be serious fiction.”

John Houck, Rice’s first straight protagonist, is a young Marine recently returned from Iraq to rural California carrying a double load of guilt. He feels responsible for the injury of his friend and commanding officer, Mike Bowers, who lost an eye saving Houck in a roadside attack. Houck had failed to act as swiftly as he should have, his hesitation stemming from a flashback to an even greater guilt: his failure to prevent the suicide of a drug-addicted younger brother. He attributes his brother’s despair to a sexual assault by an older male neighbor, an event he believes he could have prevented. As the book opens, Houck is working up the courage to visit his injured war buddy, while simultaneously considering an act of vengeance on the former neighbor.

Although what follows is not, strictly speaking, either a mystery novel or a gay one, the events that launch the characters into action allow Rice to spring toward new ground from familiar fictional territory. Finding his friend Bowers gruesomely murdered, Houck chases Alex Martin, a man he thinks might be guilty, through the woods, only to find that Alex Martin is not the murderer: He’s Bowers’ secret gay lover. As it becomes clear that whoever killed Bowers may soon come after Martin, Houck must overcome his own homophobia to protect a man he realizes was an important part of his dead friend’s life. Houck’s action-packed search for justice shines an often uncomfortable light into his own prejudices and erroneous beliefs.

Rice, a frequent columnist for The Advocate, has spoken against the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the U.S. armed forces, arguing that it allows the nation’s largest employer to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference. While the way that policy can hurt individuals becomes clear from Rice’s portrayal of Mike Bowers and Alex Martin, the author resists the temptation to allow Blind Fall to become preachy or political.

The action moves at a brisk pace, crossing a desolate Western landscape to which Rice’s wry, descriptive prose seems uniquely suited. “It had always amused him that the directions for traveling from one half of his youth to the other were so simple,” Rice writes of Houck, who, like the author, moved to California from the Deep South. “Head west on I-10. Forty-eight hours later, take a left onto Highway 62 and stop when you hit Yucca Valley, the only godforsaken town in all the high desert that can boast a Kmart. Say good-bye to Spanish-moss-draped oak trees and to people who take their time saying things so they can be sure you get the message. Say hello to tiny heat-blasted trailers with monstrous Joshua trees in their front yards and to crazy tweakers who are convinced the powers that be will be undone by a revolution that begins smack dab in the middle of nowhere.”

Rice has said that he didn’t move west seven years ago to shake up his writing, though a natural outgrowth of the move has been his adoption of California as a setting. He now calls his fiction “as much about California for me as Mom’s work is about New Orleans and Louisiana and the South for her.” He handles well both the location and the military mentality of his protagonist. In this sense, Blind Fall could be called a “California novel” or a “veteran’s novel” with as much—or more—accuracy as it could wear any of Rice’s previous labels. As Houck works to protect Alex Martin and unravel not only the mystery of Mike Bowers’ death, but also his brother’s suicide, the book maintains the pacing and plot twists that keep thriller readers happy, while at the same time exploring unique, fully realized characters and place.

At its best, Rice’s writing evokes not the work of his famous mother, but of another Louisiana writer, mystery novelist James Lee Burke. As in Burke’s books, Rice’s characters are a product of a place and a culture that put them at constant odds with the moral choices they desperately wish to make. “I used to think men like Alex and Mike took whatever they wanted,” John Houck admits to Alex Martin’s wealthy mother near the book’s climax. “But Alex and Mike tried to build something together. And I have no choice but to respect that.”

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