The Dan Sharp series began in 2007 as a four-day sailing trip from Toronto to Kingston with some friends who had just acquired a boat. On the final day, heading into the Bay of Quinte in Prince Edward County, I was tacking the sails when an unusual-looking promontory caught my eye off the starboard bow.
Our navigator, Shane, told me it was called Lake on the Mountain. “But what is it?” I asked, feeling those writerly goose bumps that said here was something I needed to know. “It’s a lake that doesn’t drain the way it should,” he replied. I parked that in the back of my brain and we sailed on.
A year later, at Cedar’s Campground outside Hamilton, I ran into Kevin Hartley, an actor I had directed in two of my plays in the 1990s. Kevin’s boyfriend, Eric, told me that his ex-partner had recently committed suicide after being denied access to his sons by his wife when he came out to her. The tale of loss and regret struck a chord. I didn’t know it then, but it was about to merge with my fascination for Lake on the Mountain to form the backbone of the first Dan Sharp mystery.
Fuelled by my sense of injustice at Eric’s story, Lake on the Mountain took the better part of a year to complete. Though I had little idea where it was going when I started, I had a fire building inside me. The first draft was 100,000 words—too long for a mystery. Publishers prefer a good 80,000 words. But I couldn’t stop. The words kept coming. By the time I finished, it was 111,000 words. Far too long ever to sell, was my thought. But, like my hero, I was willing to do whatever it took to get it out there.
I first put it in the hands of a well-meaning agent who didn’t know what to do with it. She sat on it for a year without sending it anywhere. I retrieved it from her and we parted ways. I next gave it to my then-publisher, who sat on it for two more years. Eventually, I took it back from him and sent it to Dundurn, who responded positively within two months.
When it was published in the fall of 2012, I was pleased that my editors, Michael Carroll and Alistair Thompson, had not asked me to cut it down to what others might see as a more reasonable length. They also did not ask me to cut any sex scenes, as other publishers might have done. I’ve always included sex when it seems essential rather than gratuitous, but in so doing you run the risk of being dismissed by serious litterateurs.
Like Dan, I’m a rebel who follows his instincts. I often find myself going against the grain of perceived wisdom, artistically and personally. My editors understood and respected that. Better yet, they trusted the book. That it went on to win the Lambda Award for Best Gay Mystery the following year was a genuine vindication for their risk-taking and mine.
I hadn’t planned on a sequel to Lake on the Mountain, let alone an entire series, but sometimes these things take on a life of their own. The usual incentive for writing sequels is money, but I’m not that easy. Nor was there much money. What worked for me was praise. To a writer, praise is gold. I had struck a chord with readers who were only too happy to let me know they wanted more of Dan Sharp PI.
That summer was a scorcher and the weather advisory board began issuing extreme-heat alerts. Not long before, a serial arsonist had been setting garage fires in the west end. The result was a city on edge. I must have been watching a lot of horror movies, too, because that theme worked its way into the book along with nursery rhymes—those gruesome, moralistic tales invented by adults to scare children into behaving. Clearly, the macabre was on my mind.
Thus it was that I followed Dan to a place I’d visited years before: a burned-out slaughterhouse in the west end. I was first taken there by a photographer when I was a budding fashion model. When Pumpkin Eater announced itself, I recalled that visit and knew it would be perfect for the opening scene.
With this book I was wary of the sophomore slump, a phenomenon known to sideswipe promising bands and writers who, after a strong start, fail to make a successful follow-up. I was determined not to let that happen to Dan. Fuelled by coffee and David Bowie’s music, I soon discovered that a storyline I’d tossed around in the first book was pointing to the core of the plot in the second.
With this series, my aim had always been to put Toronto on the literary map. Thus I thought of Toronto Island, a conglomeration of twelve islands that are little more than sand bars. With their isolation and beauty, it was an ideal setting. Of the twelve, only two are inhabited. My favourite is Algonquin, with its distinctive homes and breathtaking view of the city. What strikes me most is how it remains separate from yet still indelibly part of the city.
When Lake On The Mountainwon the Lambda for Best Gay Mystery that summer, it confirmed what I believed: If I write it, they will come. By then Dan, his son Ked, and Dan’s best friend Donny had taken up what felt like permanent residence in my mind. They would surprise me by coming out with odd statements at any time of day or night.
Dan and I often disagree, which may seem strange to say about a character you’ve created. I suspect it’s like parenting a child and being bewildered by what your child grows up to be. At some point, it’s no longer up to you. Resistance is futile if you want your characters to be believable. I simply ask him not to embarrass me in public. I soon had my second book in the series. And by the time the cooler fall weather came around and pumpkins stopped bursting in the fields, we all breathed a sigh of relief.
The third Dan Sharp mystery opens in China on the eve of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when hundreds of thousands had gathered in a pro-democracy rally. The world watched warily, hoping for a relaxing of control by the Chinese government. Those events ended badly, with unofficial reports of thousands killed and a harsh censorship that continues to this day, evident in the fact that many young Chinese believe the official story that the killings never took place.
From China in 1989 the book jumps to Canada in 2009 when Dan takes on a client who engages him to find his sister, last seen the night of the massacre and believed to be living illegally in Toronto. I began this book with a loosely planned plot. I had no firsthand knowledge of China, but I had an ex from Beijing who shared tales of growing up in a communist country. I used these as a rough background and researched additional facts online.
Most of the story takes place in Toronto, with key scenes set in what is known as the Downtown Chinatown. There I situated a fictional café called Kowloon on the edge of Kensington Market, a bohemian neighbourhood where black markets thrive and restaurants feature dishes like deep-fried lotus root and jellyfish salad.
The one excursion Dan takes outside the GTA is to Hamilton, Toronto’s rival to the west. There Dan visits a gay club, the Werx, and finds himself stalked by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. During my research I learned of the death of actor Alexia Zen, who appeared in my film, My Heart Belongs to Daddy. In real life, Alexia was Alex Chung. When he died of AIDS complications, he was immortalized with a life-size portrait on the wall of the Werx. According to the article, Alexia now haunts the place. If it’s true, I can’t think of a nicer ghost to be haunted by.
Dan’s office is located in a warehouse not far from Toronto’s Film District. It’s also near a photographer’s studio that he breaks into only to find himself stuck with a corpse while an intruder prowls the outer office. I once modelled for a photographer there, though he was nothing like the sleaze-ball my fictional photographer turns out to be.
I had heard that CSIS’s headquarters are located below ground in a building near the CN Tower. Having seen the massive under-ground quarters at the Toronto Convention Centre, I could easily believe there are unseen worlds down there.
While writing this book, I faced an issue I was unable to resolve to my satisfaction. Because of his involvement in a murder case involving CSIS, Dan was obliged to sign a non-disclosure agreement. I felt it would compromise him as a character, but there was no realistic way out. My editor was clear: Dan would have to sign the Official Secrets Act at the story’s end. Reluctantly, I accepted that. What I hadn’t planned on was how that storyline would circle around to return in the seventh book, The God Game, when Dan gets a chance to redress the wrong done to him with that action.
Although it was sixth in order of publication, Shadow Puppet comes fourth chronologically. It was based on eight real-life serial killings that occurred in Toronto’s gay community between 2010 and 2017. The idea for the book came when I saw a missing notice on Church Street. I recognized the man in the poster as someone I had seen in the bars. No one knew it at the time, but the killings had just begun.
I struggled with this story more than any of the other Dan Sharp books. Part of my concern lay in not wanting to exploit people’s grief and fears, but as time wore on and denials from the police force grew stronger, it was apparent there was a serial killer working in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood. It occurred to me early on that none of the missing men were Caucasian. Someone was victimizing marginalized members of the gay community.
One day while passing through Barbara Hall Park, I stopped to contemplate the AIDS memorial. It struck me how first a natural predator had diminished the lives of gay men and now an unnatural predator was doing the same. By then people had begun speaking up online, relating how they had gone to the police only to be told that their missing friends were likely zoned out on drugs or had moved without telling anyone. No one in the community believed that.
The story became real for me in December 2015 when Dr. Mark Ernsting was knifed to death during a robbery just off Yonge Street. Mark and I had dated a dozen years earlier. I remembered him as a kind, sweet man. The turnout for his memorial was impressive. It seemed at first that his death might be connected with the missing men, but a quick arrest of the killers proved otherwise.
Though no bodies had yet been recovered, the disappearances stopped between 2013 and 2016 and we all breathed a sigh of relief. They started up again in 2017 with the disappearance of Andrew Kinsman, a Caucasian man. This finally spurred the police to act. I recognized Andrew from a bar called the Black Eagle. Once a leather bar, the Eagle had recently been transformed into a chi-chi Manhattan-style establishment. It’s here that I set the Mr. Leather contest Dan attends in his hunt for the killer.
One dreary December night, while looking for inspiration, I trekked to the University of Toronto in a snowstorm. The Soldier’s Tower provided some apt atmospherics for the book’s final chapters. I finished the manuscript that month and turned it in to my editors at Dundurn, but I was left wondering when the real story would end.
One month later, a landscaper named Bruce McArthur, a community regular, was arrested and the tale began to unfold as the victims were unearthed. By eerie coincidence, Shadow Puppet was published in February 2018, one month before McArthur pled guilty to eight charges of first degree murder. At last the story had an ending, but not a happy one.
Fourth to be published, After the Horses comes fifth chronologically. The story is based loosely on the murder of Janko Naglic, owner of Toronto’s original leather and denim bar, The Barn. When I began writing I didn’t look deeply into the details of the murder, as I prefer to invent my own plots. A chance conversation on Los Muertos Beach in Puerto Vallarta, with a friend of Janko’s who spoke to him the night before his murder, gave me insight into his background.
I was not a Barn regular, though I went from time to time. Nor am I much of a drinker, unlike Dan. Nevertheless, I was there the night the upstairs dance floor threatened to collapse. I was downstairs when a trickle of plaster landed on my head and shoulders. A week later the place closed for repairs. Before it could reopen the murder occurred and the bar closed permanently.
Around that time I started a literary-musical salon, Proust & Company, to help the struggling Glad Day Bookshop at its original Yonge Street location. From 2009 through 2012, I presented quarterly reading and performance nights to boost the store’s flagging sales in the advent of e-books and on-line sales. Today Glad Day, now relocated on Church Street, is the longest running LGBT bookstore in the world.
Glad Day’s owner at the time was John Scythes, an entrepreneur and AIDS lecturer. John’s home in Parkdale was a stone mansion with an attached greenhouse. The house had an impressive pedigree. Built in 1890, the 7700-square-foot dwelling is now a Heritage Home. It has five fireplaces and a stairway that literally goes nowhere. I don’t think I exaggerated my gothic-sounding descriptions of the house. If anything, I may have understated its imposing physical proportions.
With the book’s cowboy-themed imagery, I decided to add some real-life horses to the mix—not always easy to find in the middle of a megacity. The solution came when I recalled the riding stables I passed on my bike rides up and down the Don Valley. Thus it was that I also gave one of my characters a passion for riding—not to mention stable boys.
Most of the action takes place in Toronto, but a crucial scene occurs in Quebec City. Although I colour it darkly in the book, Quebec City is one of my favourite places in North America. It’s a hotbed of artistic creativity, where you might catch a free outdoor show by Cirque du Soleil or a film by Robert LePage projected on grain silos down by the St Lawrence River. It’s here that Dan meets the man who later becomes an important part of his life.
A pragmatist, Dan has little faith in mystical experiences. Ironically, it’s while attending a funeral at the Metropolitan Community Church that he has the epiphany that helps unravel the mystery of the bar owner’s murder. MCC is near my home in Leslieville, which is also Dan’s neighbourhood. It was in this church that the world’s first modern-day same-sex marriages were performed, in January 2001. Perhaps one day Dan and Nick will have their wedding here as well.
Seventh to be published, Lion’s Head Revisited comes sixth chronologically. It was the last of the series to form a solid storyline. Its title was also late arriving. Originally called Collateral then later The Lost Boy, I conceived it as the story of a father who sacrifices himself for his kidnapped son. The idea evolved into something even deeper, evoking in Dan memories of his turbulent childhood set alongside the main storyline. It is here that I was able to deal fully with the father/son theme running throughout the series.
Just as I was intrigued by Lake on the Mountain in the first Dan Sharp mystery, the town of Lion’s Head on the Bruce Peninsula, four hours north of Toronto, also fired my imagination. The story begins with a woman panicking while lost up on Lion’s Head Lookout. It’s easy to make a wrong turn on the trails if you’re not watchful. I once took a two-hour hike that unexpectedly turned into a four-hour trek, barely making my way back down at dusk, after which it would have been dangerous to be up there.
By this point in the series I’d grown tired of writing about men. The Me Too movement had arrived and I thought it time for a distinct change; thus, the main plot concerns mostly women. Part of that decision came from my acceptance of the fact that I was a male counterpart of the movement. An assault that I had not spoken of for more than thirty years came to the fore.
For my 2010 novel about the Bosnian War, The Honey Locust, I invented a family cottage on Whippoorwill Bay outside Lion’s Head. The same area became the location for a kidnapping ransom drop-off in this book, as well as some of Dan’s most difficult memories of his parents.
The Grotto is one of many caves on the peninsula that forms part of the Niagara Escarpment. An underwater window leading to Georgian Bay is both mesmerizing and dangerous, especially if you aren’t a good swimmer. The caves made a natural hiding place for a missing boy, so I exploited them as much for their beauty as for their haunting qualities.
While doing due diligence in tracing Dan’s steps, I visited the famed Greig’s Caves. Wandering the trails, I found myself accompanied by four crows ducking and swooping and cawing loudly overhead like mischievous spirit guides. No matter how hard I tried, however, I could never capture more than three of them at a time in my photos.
You can’t have a book that’s all work and no play, even when it’s a murder mystery. That’s why I had Dan’s partner, Nick, take Dan to a baseball game. While walking home after the game, Dan contemplates the divide between being and doing, between loving and committing, as symbolized by the phrase “This river I step in is not the river I stand in” arching overhead on the Don Valley bridge at Queen and Broadview.
Time flows for everyone; we can’t hang onto it. All we can do is seize the moment before it’s lost.
Fifth to be published, The God Game is the seventh and last book in the series. It focuses on Queen’s Park, in the heart of Toronto. Thus I found myself writing a book with the Ontario Power Scandal as its background.
My intent was never to write specifically about the scandal, but about corruption in general. Like many Canadians, I felt a strong sense of betrayal over the unconscionable waste by those in power in a decade when homelessness had reached crisis proportions. And you can believe Dan Sharp PI felt the same knowing that unscrupulous people were getting rich while others were forced to live on the streets.
Queen’s Park houses the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. In the War of 1812, American forces stole the ceremonial mace that authorizes the assembly of parliament. Perhaps they thought government couldn’t be conducted without it, but there was a spare. Theft was as common in politics then as now. The statue of Edward VII on horseback, at the western edge of the park, was pirated from India after partition. As well, two cannons stationed outside the legislature’s entrance were captured by the British from the Russians during the Crimean War and presented to Queen Victoria, although she never actually came to Canada to accept them.
While writing this book, I took a tour of Queen’s Park. That visit inspired some of Dan’s wry observations on politics, as well as the conversations he overhears in chapter 4. While it's outwardly amusing, it’s deplorable how ignorant so many of us are about the past. It explains why politicians can obfuscate facts in favour of sentiment. Adolph Hitler was a master of it. So was Donald Trump in our time, as well as many current world leaders.
In many ways, this book hearkens back to Lake on the Mountain. It includes a long-overdue trip to Dan’s ex, the winsome Trevor Jones, in British Columbia. I know that pleased some fans who had expressed their displeasure at my letting them part. The book also offered the chance to take up an old grudge against CSIS foisted on me by an editor who stated that Dan must sign a non-disclosure agreement at the end of The Jade Butterfly. I didn’t like it, but in fact she was right. Happily, it gave Dan a nice chance to get even here—thus the scene set in Ripley’s Aquarium and others.
On Dan’s return to Toronto following Ked’s graduation, I brought yet another era to an end when I blew up his office in the warehouse at Broadview and Eastern Avenues. It was time: he’d outlived it and was ready for something new. But Dan has always been stubborn and resistant to change. Not unlike me. With this solution thrust upon him, however, there was literally no turning back.
With this book I said goodbye to Dan and his family and friends after more than a decade. While it was sad, the time had come for me to move on. Some have asked if there will ever be a return. Possibly. If at some point Dan starts talking to me again, I will gladly listen.