Steve Neil Johnson, a Weaver of Mysteries

Published in: July-August 2022 issue.


A  PIONEERING gay author of nine novels for adults, young adults, and children, Steve Neil Johnson died in Los Angeles on December 13, 2021, just one day shy of his 65th birthday. Most of his fiction was in the mystery/suspense genre and featured gay male protagonists. He was twice a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Mystery, for Final Atonement (1992) and The Yellow Canary (2012). For his contributions to gay literature, he was also honored by the ONE Archive at the University of Southern California Libraries.

            Born in Seattle on December 14, 1956, Johnson grew up there but left in the early 1980s to live in New York City with, as he liked to put it, “just a backpack (with a pair of cowboy boots tied to the back).” Producing his fiction in his free time, he worked the typical writers’ assortment of odd jobs starting in the mid-1980s. These included assisting early AIDS researchers, notably Mathilde Krim, and working for the first openly lesbian District Attorney of Brooklyn, Elizabeth Holtzman. It was at the latter job that he began formulating the ideas and characters that would form his first novel, Final Atonement, featuring gay homicide cop Doug Orlando, who would also appear in his second novel, False Confessions (1993).

            In recent years, Johnson completed a four-novel mystery series (The Yellow Canary, The Black Cat, The Blue Parrot, and The Red Raven) interweaving the changing lives of two gay male protagonists—one a prosecutor, one a vice cop—as they navigate the investigations of tricky murders and other crimes over the course of four decades of L.A. gay history, from the 1950s through the 1980s. Collectively, these books form The L.A. After Midnight Quartet.

            He was also the author of a novel for young adults featuring a gay teen protagonist (Raising Kane), a stand-alone thriller (This Endless Night), and a children’s book (Everybody Hates Edgar Allan Poe!) under the pseudonym Rathbone Ravenford. Together with cowriter Gary Stephens, he also wrote several telenovelas, which included Palero.

            Johnson moved from New York City to L.A. in 1987, together with his boyfriend Don Hoover, who died of AIDS in 1989. Johnson was active in the L.A. Gay Writers Group with Stuart Timmons, Peter Cashorali, Rondo Mieczkowski, and Eric A. Gordon, among others, for as long as it lasted, and he continued sharing critical readings of the surviving members’ writings. In October 1989, Johnson met Lloyd Brown; the two were married in October 2014 (soon after gay marriage become legal in the U.S.), and Brown survives him. Johnson is also survived by a sister, Stephanie, and a brother, Gary, both of the Seattle area.

            The cause of death was reported as complications from non–small cell lung cancer.


John Peyton Cook is a writer based in Los Angeles.


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