Entertainment » Books

Jon Loomis :: Ptown’s mystery man

by Kay Bourne
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Sep 9, 2009

"Anywhere else in the world, a two-hundred forty-pound man in a floral muumuu would have been about as anonymous as a circus clown at a Mafia funeral," Provincetown police detective Coffin casually notes to his partner, the gorgeous lesbian Lola Winters.

The Reverend Ron Merkin has been reported missing by his spouse Melinda. "My husband is Ron Merkin," she explains. "The Reverend Ron Merkin. We're on TV in thirty-seven states. If this gets out, the show's over, Rover." (Merkin, by the way, is a word commonly used to describe a pubic wig.)

Ron, while lambasting gays in his televised sermons, likes to cross-dress and wander the streets of where-ever he happens to be. Shortly into the detective novel High Season (2007), Ron shows up dead on the sands of Herring Cove Beach in the section frequented by gay men.

His Ptown connection

So begins the first of two deliciously amusing and keenly plotted detective novels set in Ptown by Jon Loomis, who got well acquainted with a town he obviously loves when he was a poetry writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center the winter of 1994-1995. Loomis returned to Ptown for a second bite at the fellowship apple in 2001, and two books, Vanitas Motel, 1998 and The Pleasure Principle, 2001, contain poems set in the Cape community.

"These are seven month, off-season residences in the Work Center’s compound on Pearl Street intended for emerging writers and visual artists," said Loomis in a recent Internet interview.

"FAWC is very high-art/literary minded," notes Loomis; "they’ve never given a fellowship for crime writing, I don’t think, but a couple of former fellows have gone on to write crime novels."

National Book Award winner (Tree of Smoke, 2007) Denis Johnson is one such colleague with his Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991). It follows the misadventures of a man named Leonard English, recently a survivor of a suicide attempt, who goes to Provincetown to work for a PI who is also the owner of a small radio station. Many of the people English encounters are cross-dressers like the murdered Ron Merkin of Loomis’ book.

Like Johnson’s sleuth, Loomis’s lead detective Frank Coffin is a man struggling to solve the case at hand as well as coping with the mysteries of himself. Coffin is sickened by the sight of blood and fears going out on a boat, despite being the son of a P-town lobsterman.

PIs and Ptown

Along with Cooper, Loomis is in good company when it comes to writing mysteries set in the popular resort. The late Norman Mailer, one of Ptown’s most celebrated residents for decade before his death in 2007, set Tough Guys Don’t Dance, his 1984 film noirish, tongue-in-cheek tale, in the town. Subsequently he directed the movie version in which he made lavish use of locals as extras and there were lots of cast parties to everyone’s delight.

Another gay detective that turned up in Ptown was Daniel Valentine, the PI created by Dennis Schuetz and Michael McDowell for a series of 1980 mysteries set mostly in Boston’s South End. Along with his sidekick Clarisse Lovelace, Valentine turned up in Ptown in their novel Cobalt. More recently, Jessica Thomas set one of her excellent mysteries featuring PI Alex Peres, a lesbian, in Provincetown, Turning The Tables (2005). Set on a festive Halloween night, Peres is thinking fun and maybe romance until a gay man turns up dead on Commercial Street.

"I’m a huge fan of the genre - I’ve wanted to write a mystery since high school probably," says Loomis. "I love comedy too - I really think of these as dark comedies in mystery suits." (The second in his mystery series is Mating Season, published this year).

A broad cross section of GLBT characters people Loomis’s books. In High Season, for instance, Coffin and Lola visit with Provincetown institution Dawn Vermilion, a singer in a piano bar and a one person grapevine. In her dressing room, the pink vanity, its top cluttered with lipsticks, mascaras, and half used cakes of foundation, has been shoved into one corner. "Vermilion sat at the vanity, smoking a cigarette and peering dismally into the lighted mirror. ’Middle age is such a bitch,’ she said. ’What have I done to deserve jowls, for God’s sake?’

"We came to gossip," Lola said.

Dawn smiled suddenly, a big lipsticky grin. She made a looping gesture with her cigarette. ’Gossip? Honey, you’ve come to the right place...."

Loomis’s characters are colorful across the board, straight and gay, old and young, yet none of them stretch the reader’s credulity. "I love writing big characters and there’s no quirk or passion or variation on the standard identity option package that’s too far over the top for Ptown, so it’s kind of a perfect fit for me.

"I’m also a terrible eavesdropper: I love to hang out in bars and restaurants and listen to other people’s conversations; it’s a great way to pick up vocal rhythm and idiom - the stuff that makes characters sound real," he said.

Loomis has been charmed as well by the very look of Ptown. His descriptions of houses and streets and the sea truly evoke the place. Take the exterior of Coffin’s home, for instance. "Coffin lived in a two-story cottage, cedar shakes weathered silver gray. It had a postage stamp yard, where a tangle of rose devoured a cockeyed trellis." Loomis, who teaches at the University of "Wisconsin-Eau Claire, wistfully comments, "It’s kind of a dream of mine to be able to afford a place in Ptown some day, but on my salary that seems kind of unlikely - so I visit whenever I can, maybe a week or two in a given year."

There’s a mellow quality to his writing even at its most uproarious; when Coffin and his partner go someplace they’re apt to linger a bit.

"Show us your tits!" said Captain Nickerson, eyeballing Coffin from his perch at Billy’s Oyster Shack with its "torn red vinyl booths and mother-of-toilet-seat Formica tables, stand up raw bar, jukebox full of blues and Motown." Pretty much ignoring the foul mouthed parrot, Coffin dives into a dozen raw oysters. They are "the local variety, small, firm, and very briny," and a sea creature which since it changes its sex several times during its life span seems perfect to be indigenous to Provincetown. Lola isn’t as partial to them as Coffin but she tries one to see what his lust for them might be about.

Officer Lola and detective Frank Coffin make a great team, their camaraderie a metaphor for Ptown at its best.

"My intention wasn’t as grand as that, of course," comments Loomis; "I just wanted to get their friendship right. So there’s mutual respect, genuine affection, even a zap of attraction -though that’s felt more by Frank, probably, than Lola.

"I’d like to say that Provincetown ought to be a metaphor for the U.S. at its best, and it seems to be the case that regionally and generationally we’re getting there, but too slowly and too many setbacks," continues Loomis.

"As for Frank’s twin phobias," he said, "I think they’re about alienation from his family - and Ptown’s past - and also from his job, which he’s very good at, sort of hates, and can’t afford to quit. So he’s both cut off from important parts of himself and trapped in his own fairly uncomfortable skin - he’s really a very modernist invention.

"His relationships are his saving grace - particularly, maybe, his relationship with Lola; they get each other in this implicit and deeply accepting way that’s really fun to write," he said.

High Season, the first Frank Coffin mystery was one of The Washington Post’s best mysteries of the year and an editors’ choice title for The New York Times Book Review.


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