Sex in St. Louis, 1980s-style
A mystery that reads like a crime novel, minus guns
Creatures on Display, by Wm. Stage. Floppinfish Publishing Co. Ltd.
I have always believed that the only thing more difficult than reading about sex is writing about it. Creatures on Display, by Wm. Stage of St. Louis, overcomes that difficulty in an interesting and thoughtful novel set in a moment of political, cultural and sexual American history that most readers will recall. The story reads as a crime novel without the dead bodies, gun battles, barroom brawls or frequent fisticuffs. But none of these elements seem to be required for a thought-provoking novel that is unique in both subject and insight.
The novel is set in St. Louis in 1981. Its local color and settings make it enjoyable for those who often journey to the city for a weekend or even just a few hours of shopping or dining. Many of the locales depicted by Stage will certainly be familiar to central Illinois readers. Shaun Molloy is an epidemiologist working for the Center for Disease Control with fellow investigators in a clinic tasked with the job of tracking a fatal disease that seems to have afflicted the city’s gay community. Granted this is not your standard mystery plot. But in a quirky way the story moves along, as the investigators, just as in a murder, seek out the witnesses and clues while they navigate the difficult terrain of crime-solving.
The book opens slowly and then meanders between real and past-time to establish the parameters of the investigation into the mysterious disease that 21st-century readers know all too well. Efforts to understand the new disease are more difficult because the villain of the story, Trey Vanderhaar, a powerful businessman running a private men’s club, is determined to use his power and influence to thwart any effort to investigate the connection between his customers and the ever-spreading disease.
Creatures on Display is a fine example of the adage to “write what you know.” After serving as an Army medic and studying in a pre-med program, William Stage worked for the CDC in St. Louis. Just like Shaun Molloy, Stage found himself working in a new job in a new city. He worked in St. Louis for more than four years and decided that he could get to know the city better by writing about it. The result was several nonfiction works, followed by Creatures on Display, his first work of fiction,
On the pages of Stage’s novel, Shaun Molloy is a complex individual. Like many main characters in mystery novels, his life history is part of the story. Little by little Molloy’s life, including his own foibles and eccentricities, is revealed. Readers should find him an interesting character and ponder whether Stage can bring him back in a future novel.
Creatures on Display’s greatest strength comes from Stage’s talent in capturing the ethos of the era that encompassed the sexual revolution and the culture fostered by sexual freedom of the 1980s. This fast-paced, irreverent and quirky novel is not for those who might be offended by explicit sexual situations. Nevertheless, in his first novel, William Stage has established himself as a talented mystery writer.
Stuart Shiffman is a frequent contributor to the book section of Illinois Times.