My ears pricked up when I first heard about the Drag Noir anthology because it was such an interesting combination. I immediately started to think about story ideas, mostly involving the typical boy-meets-girl, boy-finds-girl-isn’t-a-girl-after-all scenario. Then I had second thoughts. Other people would probably go down that route, and go down it a lot more skilfully than me. What I wanted was something different, something that delved into why a character would don drag, rather than just the fallout when he or she did.
Nothing really sprang to mind until a chance remark by Stephen Fry on, of all things, the BBC tv quiz show QI. This is an entertaining mix of humour and weird knowledge, and always worth a watch for the laughs, and the esoteric facts you can pick up. During one particular exchange with the contestants, Fry revealed that car theft is, as he put it, “the last great bastion of sexism in British crime”, and explained that the organised gangs running it will simply not accept cars stolen by women.
This was extraordinary enough to set my mind racing. What better reason for someone to take drastic measures if the life they loved, the work they loved, was threatened in this way? Soon Justine was born, and developed into a feisty young woman with an important skill – the ability to hack into modern, keyless cars. Add in weakling Fred, her sometime lover, sometime partner in crime; and archetypal thug Sy who dislikes women and isn’t afraid to let it show; and you have all the elements of a plot about covering up, in more ways than one.
And a tragedy as the wheels come off, of course. Because the other thing to remember is that this is noir, and in noir there is no happy ever after, or even a happy for now. Justine and Fred don’t get to drive off into the sunset in one of their stolen cars. But you’ll have to read the story to find out why. All I’ll say is that it’s no coincidence the story’s title, ‘Wheel Man’, is a bad pun on ‘real man’, and one that’s appropriate in a number of different ways…