Elon Green’s Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York (Celadon Books 2021) has three central avenues of exploration: a queer history of the United States and New York City in the 1980s and 90s, a history of the AIDS crisis and its massively devastating effect on the queer community, and finally, a history of the victims of a killer. The Last Call Killer preyed upon gay men in in New York City’s bars throughout the 80s and 90s, and Green investigates the conglomeration of circumstances—social, political, and moral—that allowed such a person to move within the city undetected for so long. A long overdue book, Green’s Last Call is a crucial text for those interested in true crime and social or queer history.
Green’s writing seems exceedingly conscious of the way queer history works and has worked for decades. The first book on the subject of The Last Call Killer, Green seems aware that in telling the story of a predator, he is also telling the story of a marginalized community at the height of a number of issues related to violence, health, and visibility. His awareness that many of these histories—histories that vary across cities and states—often live only in the heads of the elders who survive to tell them. Green emphasizes that writing down the histories of a culture that has existed for so long underground with the fear of violence and detection is now crucial to queer survival. Therefore, his book seems to carry a certain weight behind it. Beyond being the first history of a killer, the text narrativizes a community in turmoil as it struggles to find joy and connection.
Last Call is just as educational as it is visceral because Green is aware of his audience. Interviewing a gay man who lived and worked in New York during the AIDS crisis, the two talk about “how the terror of AIDS has vanished” (217). Green quotes the man as saying “‘I sort of equate it with 9/11. It’s so long in the past that now it’s in the history books. And this new generation wasn’t there for it’” (218). Green tells us that this same man would “be dead just over three months later, when an unchecked pandemic devastated the planet” (218). Part of Green’s ambition is to transcribe and make visible to a new generation the wider cultural moment of fear and paranoia that had been largely silenced in dominant heterosexual culture. This book arrives alongside similarly poignant (re)told histories of queer life that deal with systemic issues such as Justin Ling’s Missing From the Village (Random House 2020) or programs like It’s a Sin (created by Russell T. Davies 2021).
The geography of the landscape of New York’s gay scene at the end of the twentieth century is particularly significant for Green here. He works especially hard to create a vision of the complicated queer networks that allowed people to meet in relative safety in addition to the networks that could be deeply unsafe. Green emphasizes the often closeted, fast paced, high traffic, and fluctuating nature of queer life. Through this depiction, it is obvious that a predator (or predators, as Green mentions Andrew Cunanan’s use of these networks) could operate with relative ease in this environment. Green’s research here is admirable, and he underscores how important these queer networks were, large and small:
“the subject of homosexuality wasn’t engaged with in the classroom, […]. To the extent priests broached it at all, they did so just to forestall discussion. Nor would the children have learned about queer life at home, from either parents or local periodicals. To be gay or lesbian in Mattapan, West Roxbury, and Roslindale was a lonely experience. Bereft of bars and clubs, one had to travel seven or eight miles to Bay Village or Beacon Hill for the Napoleon Club, Playland, Punch Bowl, and Jacques. Out of desperation, even the bathrooms of the city’s subway system were a destination” (37).
While the ever-shifting world of queer New York is a touchstone for Green, so are the lives of the victims, which represent a solid, foundational, and tragic element of the text. Green recounts each of the victim’s lives in great detail: the people who loved them and the complex and sometimes troubled lives they led as queer children and then men in the second half of the twentieth century. With every sentence, Green underscores that these people were loved, they did matter, they are missed, and they are worth reading about. And they died in a culture where, at the time, death was everywhere. Of his ambition behind this project, Green writes:
“I’d found the story by accident, surfaced by an errant Web search. Most of these so-called true crime cases don’t stay with me, but this one I couldn’t let go. Once I got past the murders and the investigations, and my own disbelief that it had all been forgotten—a string of killings in New York City didn’t merit so much as a Wikipedia entry?—I became obsessed with the lives of the victims. I became obsessed with the lives they wanted but couldn’t have. Here was a generation of men, more or less, for whom it was difficult to be visibly gay. To be visibly whole” (214).
The drive behind Green’s writing lies in the victims and their desire to live as themselves. The ideas behind visibility and wholeness seem to underwrite Green’s book: a visible, tangible history is contained within these pages, and although it is tragic, it is undeniably real and realized in Green’s written account. It’s no longer possible to forget or to leave behind this portion of queer history. I highly recommend Last Call as exactly the kind of true crime that is a credit to its genre as informative, educational, and victim-focused.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.