Felice Picano set out to write The Lure, his seminal gay thriller, after reading about a series of killings in Greenwich Village in the 1970s. The murders, which were mainly of gay male entrepreneurs, and the police’s failure to find the culprit, were being covered by the Village Voice newspaper. But then the news stories suddenly stopped. When Picano met the reporter, he said he had been receiving death threats.
“So I thought I should follow it up – it was my neighbourhood,” says the author now, 40 years on. As he writes in a new introduction to the 1979 thriller, which is being brought back into print in the UK by Muswell Press, he had wanted to “detail a section of the gay community as I knew it; sort of the way Balzac detailed, piece by piece, much of early 19th-century French society.”
So he “went underground and did it myself”, he says. “I worked in bars and clubs, lived their lives, so I could get all the information I needed to make it realistic. And I had a good time. I got a boyfriend out of it.”
What he came up with was a layered and lurid thriller about an elusive serial killer stalking Manhattan’s gay scene. After he witnesses a murder, academic Noel Cummings is recruited by police to act as a lure for the killer. Cummings, a widower, identifies as straight but is increasingly drawn to the lifestyle he is assuming. As Out magazine put it: “For heterosexual readers for whom a flagrantly gay novel would, even in the late 70s, have been too much of a provocation, the title character Noel Cummings was a great distancing device that slowly reeled them in to New York’s gay underbelly … Only mid-novel, once Cummings is engaging in drug-infused gay orgies, does one appreciate the skill with which Picano has seduced straight readers.
“For many years before, men older than me had had to hide their lives, lead two lives, and I wanted to show people what it’d be like to do that. In this case he was hiding his straight life. I wanted to do a neat reversal of what it is like to hide part of your life,” says Picano. “Noel goes into that world and suddenly he’s awake all night and asleep all day. Everything starts changing for him as a result of that.”
When it was published in 1979, The Lure became the first gay-themed book to be picked up by the Book of the Month club in the US, it was an instant hit. (“They did me a wonderful favour, writing ‘Warning: sex and violence’ on the cover,” says Picano.)
Stephen King called Picano “one hell of a writer”, but not everyone approved. The Lure was hugely controversial with conservative readers and some gay readers because Picano, in his words, had “exposed what I called the dirty laundry of gay life, the whole night-time scene. In order to get mainstream acceptance, a lot of organisations said we should never show that side. My feeling was, I’m a modern author, I need to show what life is like, the good side and the shady side. I absolutely stand by that.”
He was even shot at in his apartment while he was working, by an unknown assailant: “My windows were open to the street. I heard the bullets and dropped down from my desk. We found the marks on the wall.”
For publisher Matt Bates, who is heading up the new queer writing list at Muswell, The Lure works on several levels. “It still has core resonance today because it functions, first and foremost, as a gripping, edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller. Any reader who enjoys a Michael Connolly, Linwood Barclay or Harlan Coben is going to experience deep satisfaction from this twisty read,” says Bates.
It is wonderful, he says, to be introducing The Lure to readers in the UK, where it has only had limited exposure. “It is important that we remember and champion queer past literature – firstly, because by reading it we can connect (possibly even feel) the experience of past queer lives and, secondly, we can also use that reading experience to measure change within the queer community both socially and psychologically,” says Bates. “Felice’s novel is a great example of that, and one that delivers on a queer level as well as being a rollercoaster ride of a thriller.”
The Lure has never been out of print in the US. It has been studied on university courses, and Picano is now considered one of the founders of modern US gay literature. The novel has, as he writes in his new introduction, succeeded “in bringing gay literature a renown – and income – that eventually helped solidify queer books as a solid ‘niche’ in publishing, and helping open the doors for thousands of volumes that followed.
“Over the years, hundreds of people have come to me and said it changed their lives,” he says. “It really surprised me!”
• The Lure is published by Muswell Press.