Thoughts on “Idyll Fears,” by Stephanie Gayle

“Idyll Fears” is Stephanie Gayle’s second novel featuring Thomas Lynch, a gay police chief in a small fictional Connecticut town in the 1990’s, but it the first I have read. It was just published in September, and so I decided to read it now rather than go back and find “Idyll Threats,” the first book in the series.

I am trying to read more current fiction along with my usual mix of the good old stuff, and this book definitely made me feel like I made a good decision.

The novel is a police procedural, in which the mystery is solved not by a cerebral wunderkind like Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe, nor by an amateur sleuth like Father Brown or Miss Marple, but by the hard work of everyday cops doing their thing. They photograph crime scenes, dust for prints, ask a lot of questions, form hunches, test those hunches with more questions, compare notes and just stay at it until they see a pattern and find answers. The police procedural form is exemplified by the works of Ed McBain, most of which I have read, and I was pleased to discover that was what I had on hand with “Idyll Fears.” Police work intersects with the whole spectrum of humanity, and makes for fascinating reading.

Gayle’s Lynch is a former New York detective-turned-police chief in Idyll, Conn., and he makes a compelling protagonist. Along with learning the job of police chief and navigating the politics of a small town, he also happens to be gay. Being a gay police chief in a small town would pose great challenges here in 2017, but this book is set in 1997 when attitudes were different, and so the challenges are that much greater. Making it even more challenging for Lynch is the fact that his sexuality is no secret. He does not want to be the poster child for gay rights, nor does he want the nasty phone calls from anonymous haters, nor does he want the practical jokes lobbed in his direction. Whatever he does, though, almost everyone else seems to just see a gay guy.

I am a white heterosexual man living in Ohio, so I have never really known prejudice directed at me. Yes, I am a journalist and so I have taken my share of phone calls and letters from people who consider me a liberal enemy of the people. Yes, my religious views differ greatly from those of most of the people around me and so I occasionally feel a sting of intolerance now and then because of that. But those facts are not known to every person I meet, every day, and I can keep my mouth shut and get by.

Thomas Lynch does not have it so easy. His job makes him visible, and everyone in Idyll knows he is gay. He just wants to have a life and do good work, but seemingly every interaction he has — with friend or foe — somehow eventually hinges on his sexuality. Gayle makes Lynch’s weariness of such interactions palpable, without preaching. I found I liked Lynch a great deal, mostly because of the restraint he shows and the way he focuses on the big picture.

Gayle’s supporting cast of cops is convincing, too, from Lynch’s own people to the FBI officers who join in to work on the book’s central mystery, that of a missing boy with a horrible disease, lost in a snow storm. Lynch’s relationships with the men and women who work for him, and with the FBI, and with the many witnesses and suspects, are believable, and they are as interesting as the criminal case being pursued.

Criminal cases, I should say, because police departments never, ever, have just one case going on. Lynch’s department, hurting for staff because this is New England flu and cold season, must also handle an arson and a major store vandalism while searching for the missing boy. Throughout all these cases, Lynch and company uncover secrets and lies. It all feels very real, and keeps you turning pages.

The page-turning compulsion heats up the deeper you go into the book; Gayle knows how to make you wonder What Happens Next. Between the plot twists, the realistic human stories and the well-rendered setting, “Idyll Fears” is a winner in every way.

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