Gay romance fiction

Review: Come Unto These Yellow Sands



For all the brightness and beauty of this book, I’m gonna go out on a limb and call it a noir and then explain what the hell I mean.

Lanyon’s phenomenal grasp of mystery mechanics and flair for M/M romance makes for a fascinating hybrid here: a romantic noir or maybe bright noir. I don't mean the Tarantino/Miller pose of noir or post-television noir kitsch, but the detached, harsh starkness of pulp noir made luminous like a shadow pulled inside out. Featuring two appealing, isolated, pained heroes, Come Unto These Yellow Sands forces its lovers to fumble, alone and together and apart, to solve a murder and a disappearance. The crimes feel fresh and motivated and the intimacy scorching. Like many classic noirs, Lanyon’s book starts with a scarred sleuth in stasis and a frantic innocent in peril who promptly vanishes into a fog of misread hints and facts.

Now before I start opining all over the place, a couple things about noir....

Soaked in midcentury paranoia and unsentimental to its core, noir has outgrown its pulpy, cinematic origins into one of the dominant mutations of the crime genre. In pop culture, noir has become a swaggering cartoon in a fedora... but way back at its expressionistic roots, noir represented a shocking split with the cozy, mannered whodunnits that had gone before. From the start, noir was brash and brutal, using tortured protagonists, conflicted motives, kinky violence, and a sense of paranoia to poke at the darkness under the American Dream. (Yum!) Noir earned its name by the shadows of its palette, and what those shadows do primarily is obscure and frame details deceptively. Expectations are a weakness. Snappy dialogue hides slivers of truth. Like poets and lovers, noir foregrounds the life-and-death danger of details. In noir, the facts must be assembled out of skewed misinterpretations and willful blindness.

“If there was one life skill everyone on the planet needed, it was the ability to think with critical objectivity.”

I would argue that what Lanyon realizes and plays with in this novel is the clear, curious overlaps between noir and gay narrative: guilty secrets, hidden lusts, inner conflicts, ironic consequence, even the impossible pressure to conform to a world that devalues individuals.

By the same token, for an isolated gay man no bleak urban landscape could generate the pressure and panic of a small, sunny town in Maine populated by happy heteros. So Lanyon’s figurative shadows fall inside his protagonists; clarity is impossible and misjudgment inevitable because they cannot see and will not reveal what they (think they) know. They flirt with addiction and betrayal. Lanyon gives us a romantic mystery with mature heroes trying to solve a murder and their tangled partnership at the same time.

Lanyon walks a fine line here. There’s a bleak, blunt hopelessness throbbing under the bright streets and rooms of his smalltown Maine setting. He blends in poetry, images, and passionate certainty to balance and give the romance room to breathe. The maudlin self-involvement of the bad poetry Swift wades through even reflects noir just enough to become funny. It’s a tightrope walk well worth the trouble because it saves the book from sentimentality and pessimism both.

Professor and poet Swift has settled into a relationship “left to chance” which is as puzzling and seductive as the crime at the story’s center. Clever, Mr. Lanyon. Swift lies almost from the moment we meet him: to Max, to his agent, to the college staff. For someone longing for integrity and commitment, that kind of gamesmanship rang true (and sad). His blithe detachment about the man he loves does seem almost… well… criminal.

“The good news was he hadn’t been arrested. He had half expected it, but there had been no word from Max at all—that, of course, was also the bad news.”

Swift’s career stalled with a never-completed collection called Blue Knife, the title harshly appropriate since it hurts him so deeply and he has teetered on its edge for so long. Actually, the color blue punctuates the book meaningfully: poetry, institutions, mother, redemption, and more. Swift's addictions dog him daily and he yearns for romanticism; yet like the most masochistic noir gumshoes, he pines for Max, the one person who could, but cannot, give it to him.

Max embodies the other type of judgmental, hard-handed heroes who populated the pulps. He lives by a rigid code of honor and distrusts people instinctively. His unexpected charm and gruff bluster make for a fiercely sexy alpha male… and a believable small-town cop. The fascination with past pain and tough decisions makes our heroes sexier and riskier. They want to share the clear light of day, but they can’t seem to get to it, together.

And yet this story is not noirish in its warmth, depth, and winning detail. Minor characters present little gems of specificity. Allusions and humor thread through entire plotlines. Lanyon serves up unforgettable snippets of Swift’s startling childhood (which I won’t spoil for you) and sketches his creative paralysis without flashbacks or big slices of exposition cake. As Swift walks into the mystery dropped on his doorstep his complicated backstory blooms around him: the death of his father, his career’s ruin, the addiction that silenced him, his almost-relationship.

Noir is a literature of dissatisfaction and disappointment; its characters want what they cannot have and have what will never want. Time passing, opportunities missed. The neat trick here is that Lanyon uses those lacks as a spur to union. The unlikely partnership between Swift and Max allows romance a space in all the noir, two detectives investigating from different angles making a perfect team.

Lanyon further isolates them, making Swift and Max the only gay men in their tiny town, unable to be straight with each other (in any sense of the word). They obviously love each other and yet they lie and mistrust so easily. Sex and stakes sizzle between them. Swift’s anxiety and Max’s outrage over their rotten behavior becomes ours. And yet they fit beautifully, with blistering tension. Are they together by choice or circumstance? A larger mystery, that, and the heart of the book.

"People did terrible things to each other—and half the time they did it by accident."

And by keeping the crime at a distance and the victim unsympathetic, Lanyon allows his two damaged lovers a little island of light in the middle of the nastiness. The crimes are less important than what they reveal about Swift and (to a lesser degree) Max. Their reunion unfolds as a slow mutual taming in which Swift’s fire and Max’s determination fuse happily. The tenderness between them provides perfect contrast to all the enemies from without. Once they solve the mystery, they only have each other and only trust each other.

My only niggle? The second-person Choose-Your-Own-Adventure kickoff to each chapter felt like an extraneous gimmick, especially with so many other complex threads doing heavy lifting. I kept waiting for those “adventure spurs” to gel or land as witty metafiction, but they seemed more like clever pop-culture fragments hammered into service as transitions. Not dire, but not needed.

Lanyon does beautiful work here, and these two men were winning in the extreme. Mystery is not my favorite subgenre of gay romance; I find that machinations tend to get in the way of the relationship, but not here. In fact, not with Lanyon, apparently. Come Unto These Yellow Sands reflects M/M mystery mastery throughout.