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Local Lit: murder mystery with a gay twist

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On the evening of his 39th birthday, August 9, 1987, Mark Richard Zubro put the finishing touches on his first novel.

"I had tried to write a novel for a number of years," Zubro recalls. "I had started several, but I'd never finished any of them. So when I was nearing 40, I made a list of goals for myself. One of them was to get something written--finished, done--and get it sent out."

Returning home to south suburban Mokena every night after teaching English to eighth-graders at Summit Hill Junior High School in Frankfort all day, Zubro determinedly produced the first draft--and then five rewrites--of his novel. Satisfied with the product, a mystery thriller about a suburban English teacher who happens to be gay, Zubro still lacked an agent or publishing contact to guide him; so he turned to the pages of Writer's Digest. The company Zubro zeroed in on was St. Martin's Press; Zubro remembered reading about Michael Denneny, a senior editor there, in the gay press. A founder of the gay magazine Christopher Street, Denneny is a widely respected advocate of gay fiction in the mainstream literary marketplace.

"I sent it directly to him," Zubro says. "It was the first thing I'd written and the first place I sent it to." St. Martin's brought out Zubro's A Simple Suburban Murder last month, and sales are brisk. For Zubro, the book is a natural result of the love for mystery stories he's nourished since childhood. He came to the genre by way of a popular pre-World War II series of kids' books--Walter R. Brooks's Freddy the Pig stories, about a group of talking farm animals. In one book, the porcine title character reads a Sherlock Holmes story and decides to become a sleuth; that led Zubro to the Arthur Conan Doyle canon and the whole world of crime fiction.

These days, he says, his taste runs to action-oriented stuff--Gregory McDonald's Fletch series and Robert Parker's Spenser books. "I like the kind of mystery that has humor in it but is on the grittier side. I have trouble with Agatha Christie's stuff."

And were the archconservative Christie alive today, she'd very likely have trouble with Zubro's stuff. A Simple Suburban Murder, written in a breezy, casually chatty style, takes the reader through a gamut of gruesome horrors that includes child abuse, teen prostitution, and snuff films, as well as more traditional hanky-panky such as blackmail, embezzlement, and gambling (conducted on a high school computer system for a modern twist). Zubro's hero, high school teacher Tom Mason, finds a fellow teacher's corpse in his classroom early one morning and sets out to discover how it got there. His search uncovers a network of vice and corruption teeming under the placid surface of life in a fictional semirural suburb called River's Edge. When the dead teacher's gay teenage son runs away, the action shifts to Chicago's north side--an underground hustler bar near Clark and Diversey and secret sadomasochist parties in artsy River North. In time-honored detective-fiction tradition, Mason's quest for the truth turns up a memorable set of suspects, including an urbane gay-bar owner who lives in a mansion and runs a secret porn business and a pair of school administrators whose relationship recalls that of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon.

Against this villainy, Zubro places the idyllic relationship between Mason and his lover, Scott Carpenter, a closeted gay baseball star on an unnamed Chicago team. Though Scott fears that his gay identity will be discovered, Tom's unapologetic honesty about being gay makes him not only a happy man but immune to the threats of blackmail used to scare him off the case. By the book's end, Tom and Scott have emerged as a healthy alternative family for a boy whose own real family is a morass of sickness and sorrow.

Most detective novels, Zubro notes, are "little morality plays," and he acknowledges he wanted his heroes to set a positive image of gay men. A similar concern led to Zubro's involvement for several years with the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Chicago-based lobbying and educational organization. Zubro was active in the task force from 1980 to '84, chairing the group's police committee.

"We spoke to cadets at the police training academy and to officers at roll call at every police district from the Chicago River to Evanston," Zubro says of his committee's efforts. The lectures sought to dispel negative stereotypes about gays and to increase police awareness of gays' vulnerability to hate-motivated "queer bashing."

"I've always been a political person," Zubro says, "in the sense of feeling a need to help people." For the last four years, he's served as president of the Summit Hill Council of the American Federation of Teachers Local 604, a job that involves helping fellow teachers with grievances, legal services, retirement, and the like. "It's such a small school-district council that I handle everything," he says. "I want to make the world a better place. I know it sounds hokey, but it's true."

That concern motivates his work as a teacher, too. "I love it," he says, sounding very much like Tom Mason in the novel. "To me, seeing a child learn something, come to an understanding of something, is just marvelous."

Despite similarities between him and his fictional hero, Zubro says "The book stands on its own as a work of imagination, a work of fiction, very separate from who and what I am." Referring to the novel's gay villains, who have got some readers trying to guess what real community figures they are modeled on, he asserts, "The gay stuff is all made up. I don't know these people and would never presume to speak about their lives."

While reaffirming his intent to continue teaching, Zubro notes that his personal life is absorbed these days by book two--another Tom Mason story--and responsibilities related to his new career. His schedule includes promotional appearances speaking and signing books at venues as varied as his book's settings, ranging from a Mokena White Hen Pantry to Scotland Yard Books, a mystery-oriented specialty shop in Winnetka, to the Illinois Library Association convention. On Tuesday, April 18, he'll sign books and greet visitors at Unabridged Bookstore, 3251 North Broadway, from 7:30 to 9 PM. For more information, call 883-9119.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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