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Fiction Private Investigators

Blood Count

A Crang Mystery

by (author) Jack Batten

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Apr 2017
Private Investigators, Hard-Boiled, Gay
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2017
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Apr 2017
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At a time when gay communities were hidden worlds, Crang needs to root out a killer and do his best to right a grave wrong.

At the height of the AIDS crisis in the early nineties, a close friend of Crang’s, Alex Corcoran, loses his partner, Ian, to the disease. After Ian’s death, Crang is enlisted by Alex to find the man who infected Ian. Crang searches for the man to prevent Alex from getting himself in trouble. However, when Alex is murdered, Crang owes it to his friends to find their killers.

The case, which explores the gay scene in Toronto at a time when LGBT culture was still very much a hidden world and open persecution was commonplace, ends up involving a cabinet minister afraid of being exposed.

A clever political mystery, Blood Count is also an emotional and moving story of a couple whose lives are devastated by AIDS and a community damaged by the prejudices of the world around them.

About the author

Jack Batten practised law in Toronto for four years before turning to a life of writing. He has written for all the major Canadian magazines and is the author of thirty-three books including four crime novels. Five of his nonfiction books dealt with real-life Canadian lawyers, judges, and court cases; a biography of John Robinette was among these books. Batten's books have also dealt with sports, Canadian history, and biography. He has reviewed jazz for The Globe and Mail, movies for CBC radio, and still writes a column on crime fiction for the Toronto Star. His biography of Tom Longboat won the $10,000 Norma Fleck Award for best children's nonfiction in 2002, and the book is being made into a feature film. His most recent book is The Annex: The Story of a Toronto Neighbourhood, published in 2004.

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Excerpt: Blood Count: A Crang Mystery (by (author) Jack Batten)

So many people turned out for the wake that it had overflowed up the stairs of the house and into my apartment. I own the house. It’s a duplex on the west side of Beverley Street across from Grange Park, behind the Art Gallery of Ontario. I live in the upper apartment and had rented the lower to two gay guys named Alex and Ian. Alex was the wake’s host, if host is the proper term for the person who’s left behind when his companion has died. Ian had died.
“I think Ian would have adored every minute of it,” Alex said.
“Except for the food,” I said. “Not up to Ian’s standards, the little bitty Simpsons sandwiches and those puffy cheese things.” “Oh, he’d have been absolutely appalled if he knew I had his wake catered.” Alex paused and got a reflective look. “Imagine what Ian would have done if he’d cooked for his very own wake. Pull out all the stops, I mean heaven.”
“Ian was divine in the kitchen,” Annie said. “Divine out of it, too.”
Annie is Annie B. Cooke, the woman in my life. She and I and Alex were sitting in my living room. It was about ten thirty. Everybody else had left. Plumes of cigarette smoke still floated in the air, and someone had planted a glass half full of Scotch and water on top of the stack of magazines on the pine table behind the sofa. The glass left a ring in the middle of Branford Marsalis’s face. He was on the cover of DownBeat.
“Smells like Rick’s American Café in here,” I said.
I walked across the room and lifted a window higher. A light May breeze wafted through the stale cigarette residue. “Practically every person we knew in the world came,” Alex said. “Ian would have loved that part.”
“Ian was a party guy,” I said.
Conversation was limping along. I didn’t mind. The idea was to keep Alex company, even if the company was limp. “Who was the dramatic-looking woman?” Annie asked Alex. “In the black with all the veils?”
“His mother.”
“Whose?” I said. “Ian had a mother?”
“She never gave up her dream that Ian would find the right girl and settle down. Old witch, she couldn’t abide me.”
“So that’s why, all the years you guys’ve been tenants, what, nine years and change, I never laid eyes on his mother?”
“Listen, dears,” Alex said, “we got off lucky. I was petrified Ian’s grandmother might attend today.”
“The tongue on her. She’s ninety-one. She phoned Ian at Casey House toward the end. He was all skin and bones and sores and lesions, and the call came from Grannie Argyll. Ian got on the line. I was there, and he managed some banter, you know, and Grannie said, ‘Well, boy, if you’d never gone queer on us, you’d at least have died of something a person could tell her friends about.’”
“Did Ian laugh?”
“Damn near till he did die.”
“Except,” Annie said, “it isn’t a laughing matter.”
“No,” Alex said, “AIDS definitely isn’t.”
I went over and took Alex’s wineglass from his hand. He was sitting in the wing chair. Annie and I occupied the sofa. I carried the glass to the kitchen and topped it up from an opened bottle of Australian Chardonnay in the refrigerator.
“Stop me if it’s none of our concern, Alex,” Annie was saying, “but I think it is.”
I handed Alex his glass.
“No, I don’t have AIDS,” he said, speaking past me to Annie. “There, does that take care of what’s on your mind?”
“We’ve been worrying, Crang and I, ever since we heard about Ian.” Annie wasn’t flustered by Alex’s direct answer. “AIDS is so virulent. I’m not an expert or anything, just what I read in magazines, but aren’t you at risk?”
Alex was smiling. It wasn’t a sad smile, more like an expression of resignation. I’d liked Alex’s face from the first day he and Ian moved in. He was handsome in a rueful way. He had the face of a guy who might be entertaining a long-running secret joke. He was tall and slim, in his mid-sixties. Ian Argyll had been almost twenty years younger than Alex, and the opposite in build, short and chunky. Ian was a real estate agent, a natural at it, a peppy, sweet-tongued guy.
“I’m not at risk, as you put it,” Alex said. “All I happen to be is angry, which is quite enough, thank you very much.”
“A doctor’s cleared you?” Annie was in her persevering-interviewer mode, something she does for pay on television. “You have no symptoms?”
“Annie, I couldn’t possibly have got AIDS from Ian, not unless it’s conveyed by hugs and snuggles. Now, can we agree to get off this particular topic?”
I was drinking Wyborowa on the rocks. “But what you are,” I asked Alex, “is angry?”
Annie laced her fingers through mine and squeezed. The squeeze meant I should lay off and leave the interrogation to her. “It’s natural you’d feel angry,” she said to Alex. “Angry at fate or whatever for taking Ian.”
“Oh, screw fate.” Alex flapped his hand in the air. “My rage is much more constructive than that.”
“At Ian?” Annie said, persisting. “That’s who you’re angry at?”
“Where Ian’s concerned, I never felt anger. With him, I went through a regular catalogue of wretched emotions. Devastation … I was devastated he had AIDS, and for a time there, not too long, I felt … betrayed. But I forgave him.”
“You forgave him,” Annie said, “for straying.”
“Annie, dear,” Alex said, “what a charmingly archaic word. Straying.”
“Well, having an affair.”
Alex was holding up the index finger of his left hand. “Actually,” he said, “one man, one time, one-night stand.”
“And that’s how Ian contracted AIDS?”
“One night is to exaggerate. More like a few nasty moments.”
“That sounds so awful, so wasteful, I want to cry.”
“I tried that already, Annie. Buckets. It didn’t help much of anything. Not the bloody rage, anyway. It’s sitting in me like some malevolent lump.”
Annie’s hand in mine felt damp. “Ian told you about this other man?” she asked Alex. “When? Toward the end?”
“Longer ago than that. He sat me down for a real heart-to-heart and poured it all out at once, the AIDS, the encounter, the certainty he was going to die. A real black-letter day, I tell you, last February fifth. Drank an entire bottle of Chivas between the two of us.”
“Now I am prying,” Annie said, “but I remember Ian looking very much not himself back from about late autumn on.”
Alex nodded. “Flu. He kept saying he had the flu, Shanghai flu, Hong Kong flu, bloody Mississauga flu, whatever strain was going. It was a litany with him. ‘Oh, luv, I’ve just come down with a touch of old devil ague and no time to bring it to its knees.’ Quite gallant when you realize he knew the truth.”
“Gallant, okay, but misleading.”
“An outright lie. But, don’t you remember, the real estate market went through the most remarkably silly boom about then? And Ian was selling a house practically every day over in Riverdale? Those old working people’s homes that yuppies go mad for?”
“Sure,” I chipped in. “Ian was out most nights. Open houses on the weekends. I used to see him dragging in at crazy hours.”
“Well?” Alex had a defensive challenge in his voice. “You see why I believed him about the flu? And how he was too busy to take to his bed?”
“Alex,” Annie said, “nobody could have suspected AIDS, not you, not anybody in your position.”
“That’s what I tell myself,” Alex said, “but I did go through a guilt period. The guilt is one of Ian’s legacies.”
Conversation slacked off. Annie seemed to have checked out of the questioning, at least temporarily.
“Plus the anger,” I said to Alex. “Ian left that behind him.”
“That, too.”
“Maybe you ought to see somebody,” I said. “You know, a professional, a shrink. Get rid of the bad stuff in your head.” “I’ve a more satisfying therapy planned, don’t you fret about that.”
“Yeah, well, a guy shouldn’t practice psychiatry on himself, especially if he isn’t a psychiatrist.”
“Crang, think of this,” Alex said, leaning forward in his chair and enunciating each word as if he was addressing a slow student. “The swine who gave Ian AIDS.”
“Come again?”
“I’m going to confront him. That’s my notion of therapy.”
“Yeah?” I said. “Ian, in fact, supplied a name that goes with the guy?”
“The murderer.” Alex’s voice had an edge. “Why not call him by what he is and what he did? He murdered Ian.”
I spent some time on my vodka, a pause to give Alex space to simmer down. “I don’t know,” I said, “there’ve been cases of guys who had AIDS, knew they had it, and went ahead and engaged in sex with other people and they got charged. Convictions registered in a couple cases for criminal assault. But murder? No way, Alex.”
“Oh, Crang.” Alex hadn’t simmered down. “Stop sounding like a lawyer.”
“Occupational hazard. I am one.”
“I know that, but can’t you see? I don’t give a flying fuck about the law.”
Sitting on the sofa, I didn’t pick up any vibrations that Annie was intending to return to the fray.
“Listen, Alex,” I said, “back to square one. You got a name for the guy who infected Ian or not?”
“Okay, I’d say it’s game over.”
“I think Ian must have held back on his killer’s name because he read my reaction. He saw how furious I was over everything.” “Does it matter now?” I raised my hand and wobbled it back and forth. “All that counts is no name, no confrontation.”
“But I’ve got something almost as good,” Alex said.
“Something Ian gave you?”
“Where he met his killer. The very place Ian met him.”
Annie and I exchanged a fast glance.
“Oh, don’t look at each another that way,” Alex said. “I’m not crackers, and I don’t need anybody humouring me.”
“Well, listen to yourself,” I said. “The place Ian met his killer. Even if you should go rooting after the guy, which is pointless right there, destructive really, the place by itself can’t be much help.”
“It can, believe me on that, my friend.”
“What? Some office Ian did business in? One of his open houses? Along those lines?”
“I’m keeping the location to myself, so don’t bother cross-examining.”
“Helping is what I figured on.”
Alex was silent for a couple of moments. “I appreciate that, honestly,” he said. “I appreciate just sitting here with the two of you. But what I’ve got to do, I’ve got to do alone.”
Alex stopped himself.
“Did you hear that?” he said. “I sound like John Bloody Wayne.”
“Even John Wayne had a sidekick,” I said. “Montgomery Clift, Katharine Hepburn, or somebody.”
“Crang,” Alex said, “on this, I am alone and very determined.”
Alex got a look on his face that I would have called determined.
“Finding the man who murdered Ian,” he said, “is a rather personal crusade, if you like.”
The room seemed to have become much quieter.
“I’m going to find him,” Alex said. “And when I do, pardon the drama, my dears, I am going to kill the bastard.”

Editorial Reviews

Like a fine wine, the [Crang] series — and its protagonist — have aged well.

Toronto Star

A clever and deftly crafted political mystery by a master of the mystery/suspense genre.

Midwest Book Review

Other titles by Jack Batten