Once upon a time, being a homosexual in a bar that catered to homosexuals was a crime in New York City. Any homosexual caught in such a circumstance would spend a night in jail and find his name in the paper in the police blotter the next day, along with the label “homosexual.” In Eric Bernat’s thrilling new novel “The Dancer,” a man named Christopher found himself in that very predicament in the summer of 1958. After getting out of jail the next morning, he returned home to his pretty, young and unsuspecting wife and, rather than deal with the shame, he shot himself to death in their apartment.
Christopher’s suicide triggers a chain of events that upends multiple lives not just in 1958 but twenty seven years later in 1985. The ripple effects of his suicide rip through not just the life of his young widow Iris but through the lives of unsuspecting strangers.
In 1985, one of the lives of those unsuspecting strangers is abruptly ended. On its surface, “The Dancer” is a murder mystery. Chapter One hits the ground running as it takes us through a brutal assault (and eventual murder) as experienced by its victim, a young woman named Mindy. The rest of the novel unfolds the mystery of why and by whom she was killed in riveting fashion.
How Mindy’s body was found and how her murder might get solved revolves around Joey, the novel’s protagonist. Being a gay hair stylist in New York City in 1985 puts Joey in the midst of the surging AIDS crisis. Having lost so many friends already, including his boyfriend, Joey’s depression and “do I have it, too?” paranoia has him contemplating his own suicide. When he accidentally stumbles upon Mindy’s dead body in the bathtub of a neighbor’s flooding apartment, his life takes a dramatic turn onto a dizzying rollercoaster.
Is he a suspect? An accessory? A witness? Is the killer after him now, too? At the very least, the mysterious thrill ride that ensues suspends Joey’s suicidal fantasies as he becomes ensnared in the investigation by the lead NYPD detective and by his own desire to learn the truth of what happened to Mindy and why.
As the story unravels like an intricate origami with new folds and twists around every corner, Bernat takes us back and forth between 1985 and 1958, weaving a dense tapestry of plot threads and characters that could easily become a hot mess of confusion in the hands of a less capable writer. But he never lets us get lost; he just pulls us in closer. Bernat’s skill in balancing this high-wire narrative act is dazzling.
With a colorful cast of vividly drawn characters, Bernat mixes real life people with the ones of his own invention. Along with Joey, his best friend and soap opera actress Aggie, the darkly hilarious Lieutenant Collier, a charming retired mobster named Carlo, Christopher’s widow Iris and many others, we also spend significant time with real people vital to the story: J. Edgar Hoover, his associate FBI director and “protege” Clyde Tolson, former New York mayor Ed Koch and Dorothy Schiff, the legendary former owner and publisher of the New York Post.
As a juicy noir, “The Dancer” has all the ingredients you could want: murder, danger, money, sex, alcohol, cigarettes, darkened hallways, shadows, betrayal, loyalty, intrigue and a whole bag of extras that make the story a genuine page-turner. One might wonder why the story should bounce between two seemingly insignificant years a quarter of a century apart, but it all comes together quickly and thrillingly enough. All you need to know is that all of this happened because a closeted gay man killed himself in the summer of 1958. The discovery of the suicide’s repercussions that same year and its deafening and deadly reverberations in 1985 make for an exhilarating read.
“The Dancer” is available in paperback (365 pages) or for the Kindle on Amazon.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Eric Bernat, the author of “The Dancer,” is one of my oldest and dearest friends and a former roommate. Given that information, one could understandably be tempted to dismiss this amateur review as biased. I promise it isn’t. To support my friend, I read his book with – I’ll admit – a little trepidation. What if it wasn’t good? What would I say? But after reading the first chapter, I knew I was in for a fantastic ride. By the time I finished two days later, I couldn’t wait to write about it. I know Eric to be one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. (Imagine a male version of SNL’s Vanessa Bayer.) “The Dancer” is a departure into a thrilling direction and, according to him, the first of a trilogy. I’m really looking forward to the next installments. Any Netflix, HBO or Hulu showrumners looking for great source material for a dark new mini-series should be all over this. If you enjoy reading tight and tense murder mysteries and thrillers, you’ll want to add “The Dancer” to your summer reading list. Trust me.