Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Flaming Malevolence

In Erica Wright’s second thriller, beloved New York drag queens are the target of a hate group

In Erica Wright’s second thriller, The Granite Moth, twenty-seven-year-old private eye Kathleen Stone is still masquerading as a New York real-estate agent in the same rundown, budget-friendly office building—and still trying to nab drug kingpin Salvatore Magrelli. As in The Red Chameleon, Kathleen also crashes on her office futon and uses wigs and costume disguises when she’s sleuthing. But her caseload multiplies when two drag queens, colleagues of her dear friend Dolly at the Pink Panther nightclub, are killed in an ostensible accident during the city’s Halloween parade on Sixth Avenue.

It becomes evident soon enough that it’s no accident when the Pink Panther float catches on fire just as Dolly begins to belt out “Rocket Man.” In notices mailed to the club on stationary bearing the haunting image of a noose, the gay performers had been warned of their own impending funerals. Which is why club owner “Big Mamma” Burstyn hires Kathleen to find their killer.

As she was in the debut novel of this series, Kathleen is a complex, slightly damaged personality who’s still mourning the tragic deaths of her parents and whose closest friends are Dolly and their shared Russian wigmaker, Vondya Vasiliev. The wigs are crucial to keeping Kathleen and her many personas—Katie, Kat, Kitty, Kathy, Kate, Katya, even Keith—in business after her premature retirement as an undercover officer for the New York Police Department.

Still trying to infiltrate the Magrelli empire to take down the mob boss, Kathleen poses as a bored, new-money socialite—Kennedy Vanders—and uses her connections to get into a high-stakes poker game at the posh, members-only Skyview club run by Magrelli’s wife, Eva. Kathleen is just about to win a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em when the handsome dealer, who’s also gay, dies at the table after a sip of champagne. In the usual way of mysteries, it then becomes Kathleen’s task to discover whether there’s a link between the two murderous episodes and, if so, what.

Activists of the anti-gay Zeus Society show up at the funeral of one of the dead performers, leading Kathleen to believe that the hate group could be behind the deaths of the Pink Parrot’s beloved drag queens. To pose as an acolyte at the group’s meetings—which, bless Erica Wright, are held at a warehouse that stores pornography films—Kathleen needs a new wardrobe because she doesn’t own “anything that screamed, ‘I hate gays, too!’” And what’s a cash-strapped P.I. to do but hit the thrift stores? Choosing a gray-flowered dress, Kathleen holds it out, “trying to decide whether the black flowers looked understated or goth. ‘It’s not so bad,’ I began, noting that it was pilled in a few places and seemed to have (fingers crossed) a coffee stain along one seam.”

Much of the fun in this layered thriller comes from Wright’s sardonic humor, which is fresh and young and smart, and her prose style, which is not the sort of hackneyed fare that largely populates the thriller genre. Though The Red Chameleon was the Nashville author’s debut thriller, it wasn’t her first book. The Wartrace native is also the author of two poetry collections—Instructions for Killing the Jackal (Black Lawrence Press, 2011) and Silt (Dancing Girl Press, 2009)—and she serves as the poetry editor at Guernica.

For my money, the words of The New York Times’s Marilyn Stasio, who last year praised the original voice of Wright’s protagonist, apply equally well to The Granite Moth: “[T]his new P.I. has got a smart mouth on her, and plenty of wigs to help her find her own true character.”