Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Being the Steel Drummer by Liz Bradbury

Book:  Being the Steel Drummer
Author:  Liz Bradbury
Publisher:  Lesbian Mystery Books (an imprint of Boudica Publishing, Inc.)

Back during the mid-nineties, I worked for a Beltway Bandit.  If you’re not from the Washington, D.C. area, you may not be familiar with this particular term.  In essence, a Beltway Bandit is any of the myriad consulting companies located in or around the Capitol Beltway, the twelve-lane ring road that surrounds Washington and many of its suburban communities.  Since time immemorial, the press and politicians have demonized Beltway Bandits for preying on the largesse of the U.S. government.  And, while there are more than enough examples of corporate greed and gluttony to warrant this label, people often forget that the Beltway Bandits are staffed by honest, hardworking, underpaid staff who buy into mottos like “better, faster, cheaper,” “doing things that count,” and “we do what we say.”

And, if they’re lucky, they buy into the proffered corporate stock purchase plans, which split repeatedly before being gobbled up by deep-pocketed monopolistic gargantuans like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Halliburton.

But I digress. 

During the mid-nineties, Corporate America jumped on the Diversity Bandwagon.  My particular company established Diversity Counsels at each of its major offices.   These Diversity Counsels looked at each of the employees in the office, and set up education and outreach programs that all staff members could participate in to learn more about the range of differences, and similarities, of the group as a whole.  One of these programs, in particular, stands out for me: The Diversity Potluck. 

The theory was simple: bring something to lunch that somehow represents you.  One of my closest friends was a black man from South Carolina who brought shrimp and grits.  Another coworker, a young woman named Hendricksen, brought a platter of marzipan.  The token flaming queen of the office sashayed in with a quiche and a wire bound history of gay men and their fascination with savory custards.  Me, being a corn-fed, twitchy little dyke, brought a covered dish full of steaming corn casserole. 

The conference room was packed with more than fifty people—everyone brought something to the table, except one man—a delightful scientist with a fascinating accent from Trinidad, named Ramesh.  He simply sat at the back of the room with a plate of grits, a hunk of quiche, and a big smile on his face.  Midway through the lunch, his wife poked her head into the conference room, and we all assumed she was delivering his contribution to our lunch.  He just smiled at her, and nodded as she disappeared the way she had come.  Within seconds, Ramesh’s young son and daughter came marching into the conference room serenading the diverse, marzipan-eating lot of us with a bouncy and melodic steel drum version of “Forged from the Love of Liberty.”  After a solitary lap around the room, the young musicians exited through the door they had entered, and the stunned lot of us blinked a few times, and then thumped Ramesh on the back as we tucked back in to our borscht. 

Note: much to the dismay of young Earc Flannagan, the Scottish nuclear physicist, someone wearing a Tyvek suit, gloves, full mask air purifying respirator, and chemical resistant boot covers, removed his haggis from both the buffet table and the building in an unceremonious fashion.

Detective Maggie Gale is back in Liz Bradbury’s Being the Steel Drummer.  Set a mere two months after the action-packed events of Angle Food and Devil Dogs, Maggie Gale and her intrepid band of Fenchester Lesbyterians find themselves firmly rooted in a mystery that involves greed, murder, ghosts, neighborhood politics, lost treasure, bawdy sex, middle-age stalkers, Shakespearian verse, and a love affair for the ages.  Through it all, Maggie and her new lover navigate the unfamiliar waters of their relationship, as they test a long-term future thinly veiled as a trial professional partnership.

Being the Steel Drummer is a textbook whodunit, surprisingly wrapped in a rich, lusty romance.  The story is plot-driven and complex, and is focused on a puzzle that spans more than 140 years. Like the classics of the genre, it contains a closed and diverse circle of suspects with means, motive and opportunity for the crime—and a detective, her sidekick, and a loveable Great Dane who come to investigate and, with the help of clues and the power of deduction, discover the real perpetrator, who is rapidly brought to justice after a suspense filled chase.

In fact, it had everything but the line, “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling lesbians and your stupid dog!”

In all seriousness, Being the Steel Drummer is a compelling read, and Liz Bradbury is a master at tweaking the clichés within the genre to produce a novel that fires on all cylinders.  She manages to create a central crime that is the literary equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing, complete with intricate algorithms and tessellation patterns.  The big bad is introduced early and the plot devices, clues, and red herrings are almost impossible to differentiate until all the pieces began sliding into place as Maggie Gale explains how she solved the crime.  Most pleasing is how the author resolves the myriad subplots by the end of the novel, and nothing is left hanging.

Beyond the classic whodunit, Ms. Bradbury also treats readers to a gripping and sensual love story between two women in post Civil War America.  This story line is equal parts sweet, savory, sexy, and heartbreaking—and includes its own mini mystery that, true to form, is solved by the irrepressible Maggie Gale.  The more modern love story between Maggie and her inamorata, Dr. Kathryn Anthony, cleverly and keenly illustrates the similarities and differences between sex and sexuality across the ages. 

If there is any one place I would make a red mark on Being the Steel Drummer—it’s in the grammatically correct but overly formal dialogue.  Don’t get me wrong, Maggie Gale, for the most part, talks like an ex-cop-cum-private dick.  But occasionally, and I mean occasionally, she throws out lines over morning coffee like, “But shall we call it tenaciousness?  Then it’s more of a virtue.”  And, during what can arguably be described as one of the most well written bondage scenes in all of lesbian literature, the intrepid Ms. Gale “shalls” her way into infamy and near exhaustion.

For the record, “shall” is not sexy.  Ever. Okay, maybe if Elizabeth Bennet says it….

Be that as it may, Being the Steel Drummer is one of the very best whodunits to hit the bookshelves this year.  It’s well written, well plotted, intricate, and inventive, and it makes you anxious to read the next work-in-progress in the Maggie Gale Series—C-Notes and Ski Nose.  If you’re a fan of mysteries or you love solving puzzles, this is one book you won’t want to miss. Liz Bradbury is a talented author and a driven activist, and I salute her occasional shout-outs to GLBT rights within the pages of Being the Steel Drummer.  

I’m giving this crafty little whodunit a 5.0 out of 6.0 on the Rainbow Scale, with an additional 0.1 because I waited four long years for the follow up to Angel Food and Devil Dogs. 

That’s an overall rating of 5.1.


  1. Woot! One of my very first Kindle purchases--June 29, 2009 was the first Maggie Gale mystery. I'm thrilled there's a follow up. Your review is cracker jack! Yup.

    And about the diversity potluck...I wished I'd been there to support Earc Flannagan with the haggis! Skirle is pretty tasty as well.

    Great job Ms West!

    1. DorisRose MacBean!!!! It's been AGES since you stopped by TRR to chat - missed you alot.

  2. Another entertaining review. It continues to amaze me, how you successfully weave together events from your own past to the book you are reviewing. So enjoyable.
    Liz Bradbury is indeed, an amazing activist and if she brings that same passion to her writing, then we all are in for a great read.
    It's on my wish list now.
    And Ms.West....I love learning a new word or two with each review. Today it was 'tessellation'. Now, where did I put that dictionary? ;-)

    1. Why thank you, Karen! And, let me say it's great to hear from you again. As I told Liz, my review is just a by-product of her book. Your homework for the day is to use 'tesselation' in a sentence. Go!