From the start, this new Tales Of The City novel is a slightly nervy affair. Armistead Maupin says this book will be the last in the series so the question that nips and gnaws from page one is: where does that leave the former tenants of 28 Barbary Lane? Will their creator end the story that has run in real time since the 1970s with the obvious dramatic flourish? Will he kill off the characters that for 35 years have been so alive?
In the first few pages, this seems to be where the story is heading, for Mrs Madrigal at least. The transsexual landlady who ran that rackety old house in San Francisco - first in a newspaper serial, then in a series of novels starting in 1978 with Tales Of The City - is now 92 and frail. Occasionally she finds herself "slouching ludicrously on one hip, like Joan Crawford in 1940s gun moll mode" and then she thinks to herself "mustn't think of it as a gun. Think of it as a wand."
Such affectionate, nostalgic campery is a trademark of Maupin but it is only one of the vital organs of his novels: there is the light, naturalistic comedy too, as well as the sexiness, melodrama, coincidence and an extraordinarily high emotional IQ. The latter means that the idea of Mrs Madrigal's death is handled with gentle, soft skill; she refuses to avoid the subject of ageing- and ending - and occasionally becomes irritated by other people's denial of death. "It gets tiresome being told you're immortal," she says. Her intention, she insists, is to leave like a lady.
Maupin never lingers on the leaving, though - in fact, what is most surprising about The Days Of Anna Madrigal is that we spend more time at the beginning of Mrs Madrigal's story than we do at the end, spooling right back to her childhood in the 1930s. When we first met the landlady in the original novel, standing on her stoop amid wisps of incense and cannabis smoke, we knew nothing of her childhood. Then gradually, over the course of the first few novels, we discovered she was the son of a brothel keeper in Nevada and had run away to have a sex change.
In the new novel, Maupin spends much of his time exploring the details of that childhood and it is the most rewarding, authentic and moving part of the novel. Not only do we join Andy (as Mrs Madrigal then was) as he first explores the desire to wear dresses, we are also there when he falls for an unsuitable boy and it is the first, most fragile kind of obsession. "Not even love yet," says Maupin, "and probably never. Just the highly unlikely and nearly impossible possibility of love."
Spending so much time in the 1930s in this way is something of an experiment for the Tales books, but how wonderful that Maupin is still experimenting in the final novel of a long series, even if he does have the good sense to do it within the soft, familiar walls of a beloved formula with all the usual elements and characters in place.
The most important of those characters - more important even than Mrs Madrigal - is Michael 'Mouse' Tolliver, one of the original tenants of Barbary Lane. In the first few novels, he was a lithe young gay man and a sexual adventurer; now he is a Buddha-bellied older man with a younger husband. "I'm old-fashioned," says Michael. "I believe marriage is between a man and a man." Which is Maupin's way of pointing out that the gay experience can be different from the heterosexual one but also the same - and he makes the point, as usual, with a joke, not a lecture.
There are plenty of other laughs in The Days Of Anna Madrigal - some of them fabulously rude - although this is not the funniest of the Tales books. It is not the most surprising either, or even the most memorable, but in tackling the end of this remarkable, treasured series of novels, and the uncomfortable closeness of life and death, with such intimacy, reality and wit, it is the most mature of the series, the most intelligent and the most moving.