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KNOCK OFF THE HAT is set in Philadelphia in 1947. It was a time when the country was still settling after the disruptions to ordinary life brought about by the Second World War. Men who had survived their wartime service were safely home and adjusting to civilian life; other men who had never served were looking for ways whether ethical or dubious to make a buck or two from the expanding economy. Although there may have been a desire to return to the status quo ante of pre-war life, the war had brought about significant changes that were only becoming apparent.
Clifford Waterman, a man who had served in as an MP in Cairo until he was caught having sex with an Arab cleaner, returned to the US and subsequently dishonourably discharged, has set up as a private detective in Philadelphia. His cases largely involve divorce evidence and rarely any serious involvement with violent crime. His present client, however, is about to involve him in an investigation that could quite possibly end up being Clifford's last.
The Philly gay bars, always subject to periodic police raids and shakedowns, are in the throes of a stepped up campaign that seems designed to force them to close. Worse, the old protocol that a fifty dollar bribe would assure that arrested bar patrons would not find their names printed in the paper the next day as arrested for moral turpitude no longer held. The price has gone up to five hundred bucks. Clifford's client is worried about a close friend of his who has been arrested and who cannot not raise the sum. He is afraid that his friend might commit suicide if his name becomes public.
As Clifford begins to investigate, a name keeps coming up - Judge Stetson (thus the title), who has always been corrupt but now seems to have become monumentally greedy. And as the toll of arrested gay men continues to climb, Clifford begins to wonder if he himself might not become a target for whoever is behind all of this.
KNOCK OFF THE HAT is not a long book but the author makes every word count. While developing a suspenseful plot, he manages to introduce details that flesh out the period in which it is set and that prompt the reader to consider not only the changes that have occurred over time, but also the consequences should certain of these changes be reversed.
The author skilfully evokes the late 1940s through casual, unforced period detail. Horn & Hardart's Automat is a restaurant of choice; everybody smokes. Clifford's clients are annoyed when they can't reach him because he isn't in the office to answer the phone. And he needs to get in touch but can't find a pay phone. But what really nails the distance between then and now is the cost of living. Men with good jobs have difficulty raising fifty dollars to protect their reputations - when the price goes up to five hundred it could as well be five million. Cigarettes were eighteen cents a pack and as my father used to maintain, the chicken pot pie in the Automat cost a quarter.
The risks to gays living in a relatively conservative community were real and possibly deadly. Although the author was certainly not part of the scene in 1947, the threats and contempt they experienced were commonplace for years thereafter and only began to dissipate after Stonewall. Stevenson evokes the fear, the tawdriness, the brutality of those days and the succeeding two decades that invaded the private lives of vulnerable gay people. They were vulnerable simply because they were school teachers, or worked in the offices of "respectable" companies, or simply not out to their families who would be at best shocked, at worst disgusted at the public news that one of their offspring was gay.
Clifford belongs to the small group of out queers who had nothing to lose if they were identified. Clifford even has an official certificate, his dishonourable discharge from the army, which states why he was separated from the service. He has it framed and mounted on his office wall. When the document is lost in a fire, Clifford is devastated. That piece of paper, he says, had "actually made an honest man of me. After Uncle Sam had his way, I was no longer a sneak." It is the item he most wants to replace though he does wonder if his congressman will help him to get another. Ironically, this certificate that the army had intended to serve as a kind of perpetual quarantine makes it possible for Clifford to lead a freer life.
Gays were not the only ones who were threatened by public exposure. Through occasional if telling references to HUAC and red-baiting, the author links a broader area of repression to local Philadelphia corruption. Any reader who knows anything at all about the red-baiting of the 40s and 50s in the US will recognize the similarity of those techniques to the public shaming at the heart of the suppression of the gay community.
Sadly, Richard Stevenson died shortly before this, the last of his novels, was published. It is impossible to know whether he intended it as a warning to his readers. But those of us who are beginning to realize that the brave "Never Agains!" of our lifetime are starting to sound rather hollow will find in it a sharp reminder of what we stand to lose if we forget the past.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2022
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