Mary Ann in Autumn, By Armistead Maupin

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The Independent Culture

Phew! That's some relief. This novel is extremely good in familiar ways – and therein, precisely, lies its surprise. When Armistead Maupin first returned to the world of Barbary Lane, San Francisco, resurrecting the characters of his hugely popular, six-volume Tales of the City series for Michael Tolliver Lives (2007), the effect was underwhelming. There was a welcome message contained in the title – that "Mouse" Tolliver, a character who turned HIV-positive in Sure of You (1989), had survived the Aids epidemic, thanks to the restorative power of protease inhibitors.

Beyond that, though, the novel had seemingly little to say, and still less dramatic spirit. One probable cause was that Maupin adopted the first-person voice, thus embodying Tolliver, whereas the Tales, with their Dickensian canvas and Chekhovian egalitarian sympathies, had always required omniscient narration. That enabled plot fluency, a diversity of perceptions and, above all, the Hitchcock-like suspense that Maupin made his own.

Intuitively, perhaps, Mary Ann in Autumn corrects the error. Its author has recovered all the dynamism and intrigue found in the best Tales, matching them as carefully to the paraphernalia of our world (iPhones; webcams) as the 1970s volumes had documented the fashions and priorities of that era. Some debates obsolesce, others endure. When Maupin includes Proposition 8 – the so-called ban on gay marriage voted through in California, but still going through the US courts – the echoes of the first Tales of the City, and the homophobic rhetoric of Anita Bryant, are all too poignant.

Here Maupin permits the returning, prodigal pseudo-daughter of Anna Madrigal's improvised family, Mary Ann Singleton, a leading role in uncovering the first-class thriller plot. But the third person frees the author from the limitations of a single perception, as well as from the sense that any one of these lives is preferred.

All the familiar characters are here – including, even, some we may be surprised to find still living. Anna Madrigal makes for a sprightly transsexual in her late eighties, although Maupin transfers his playful interrogations of the absurdity of gender norms onto a new character, Jake, her transgendered lodger. Mouse's younger partner Ben features prominently, as in Michael Tolliver Lives. But his character develops more edge - almost as if, like a "real" person, he has grown in confidence during his stay in Maupin's fictional universe. The integration of past incidents into the present is much more successful than in the book's predecessor, as Maupin uses long-forgotten loose ends to create ongoing tensions and uncertainties.

There is warm-heartedness, spirit and elan here, and, thankfully, nothing self-justifying or cosy. Of course, all these characters, in getting older, might seem to make the light tone of the Tales harder to sustain. In practice, what Adam Mars-Jones called their "approximate interchangeability of crises" – so evidently threatened in the 1980s with the advent of Aids – survives the incursion of all manner of ailments, from uterine cancer to gout and Alzheimer's.

Maupin's consistent pursuit of simple, universal and deeply human themes has once again found its formal equilibrium. Fans will be delighted to hear that – to quote Jake in another context – "it's about who you are inside, and what you need to be happy".

Richard Canning's most recent book is 'Brief Lives: E M Forster' (Hesperus)