Gay & Lesbian Detective Novels
The Gay Detective Novel - Part 1
One of the great things about fiction is how cultural issues of the day get drawn into plots and themes. This is particularly true of the mystery and of crime fiction. The gothic novels of the 18th and 19th century led to the creation of main characters whose major role was to sniff out guilty parties and solve crimes. Poe's Auguste Dupin and Doyle's Sherlock Holmes set the tone early for models of detection and the types of sleuths who ferreted out criminals. But none of those characters were gay.
By the early 20th century, mystery writers were focusing upon armchair detection, "murder in the manor," locked rooms, red herrings, aristocrats, and the unseen terrors found in sleepy villages. The plots and themes of authors like Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy Sayers, Nicholas Blake, and many others reflected American and British society of that time. The pulp novels and magazines wrote of lurid murders, criminal activities, and racy sexual liaisons that were hardly evident to most citizens. While class, violence, racial bigotry (such as "yellow peril"), and misogyny were thematic staples, homosexuality was not addressed.
The first "mystery" novel may have been Poe's 1841 THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, but it took over a hundred years for the first gay male detective to surface in literature as anything other than an implied villain or victim. The 1953 British novel, THE HEART IN EXILE, by Rodney Garland introduces psychiatrist Tony Page, whose one-time lover has apparently committed suicide. Page begins sleuthing to find out why-and to make sure he's not outed. The story takes place in a very closeted 1950s gay London with all its class consciousness and deep-seated homophobia. If the pseudonymous Garland ever wrote another novel, it's long out of print.
Going for the Humor
By the mid-1960s, some pulp fiction novels carried mystery plots-or at least mystery sub-plots. There was crime and detection and a sleuth, but often that was window-dressing for humorous romps with stereotypical characters and less-than-serious plots. Hugh Ross Williamson's A WICKED PACK OF CARDS and Lou Rand's THE GAY DETECTIVE both came out in 1961. Williamson's book is long out of print, but the jacket copy of Rand's 2003 reprint says, the 1961 novel "stars a sissy gumshoe, his butch ex-Marine assistant, a nymphomaniac on the make, and plenty of dishy humor."
The first novels with obviously gay detectives were a mixed bag of oddballs and stereotypes. "Dishy humor" was the order of the day, a sort of "Queer Eye for the Straight Mystery Guy's Amusement."
Drewey Wayne Gunn covers this phenomena and more in his excellent new historical overview THE GAY MALE SLEUTH IN PRINT AND FILM (2005). Gunn reports that in 1966, author Victor J. Banis, writing as Don Holliday, published the campy, tongue-in-cheek THE MAN FROM C.A.M.P. and as J. X. Williams put out GOOD-BY MY LOVER. Both were comedic, lighthearted mysteries with C.A.M.P. being a goofy takeoff on spy/espionage stories. Hardly the serious type of mystery many expected at the time. Gunn reports that the first gay undercover agents appeared in 1967: Anthony Firth's TALL, BALDING, THIRTY-FIVE and Peter Leslie's THE GAY DECEIVER. In all of these books, often the mystery elements were secondary to the campy or "freak-show" aspects injected into the story lines.
Gay Detectives Get Serious
In her landmark resource, THE GAY DETECTIVE NOVEL (2005), Judith Markowitz writes that the "gay/lesbian police subgenre began inadvertently in 1966 with the publication of George Baxt's A QUEER KIND OF DEATH. New York Police Department (NYPD) Det. Pharoah Love was the detective assigned to the case of a gay hustler murdered in his bathtub. Although Love was not the main character, he was the one readers remembered. Baxt wrote two sequels with Love as the main focus (if not the actual main character). Love was also the first gay/lesbian African American main character and the first transsexual."
The Baxt books are trailblazers, but looking back nearly forty years later, they read as homophobic and oppressive. The gay men are self-destructive, unhappy, and sometimes amoral. It seems that as a result of their gayness, the characters were made to suffer-and they made plenty of others suffer as well.
It's not until Joseph Hansen's Dave Brandstetter series hit print in 1970 that a well-rounded, serious, and effective gay detective was unveiled. Brandstetter starts out as an insurance investigator in California, then in later books becomes a PI. Middle-aged in the first novel, FADEOUT (1970), Brandstetter had lost his lover of 25 years, and his grief complements his hard-boiled character quite well. In a twelve book series spanning 21 years, Hansen paints a portrait of a complex and interesting sleuth. The mystery plots are twisty and complicated and as well-plotted as any sleuth story in print at the time. Hansen tackles issues of AIDS and homophobia as well as typical mystery fare like drug dealing and toxic dumping. As University of Michigan professor Ted-Larry Pebworth has written, "For the first time in the crime genre, Hansen presented gay men and lesbians in all their variety, without sensation, as simply men and women with understandable desires, triumphs, and frustrations."
The 1980s and 1990s
The period between the two World Wars has always been called The Golden Age of Classic Detective Fiction. I wonder if the period from approximately 1980 to 2000 is going to be considered The Golden Age of Gay Mysteries. Nathan Aldyne's VERMILION (1980), Canadian writer Edward Phillips' SUNDAY'S CHILD (1981), and Richard Stevenson's DEATH TRICK (1981) kicked off popular gay series. Also published were a number of other standalones such as Paul Monette's mystery, GOLD DIGGERS (1986), Stephen Lewis's COWBOY BLUES (1985), Richard Hall's BUTTERSCOTCH PRINCE (1975, revised 1983), and Felice Picano's thriller, THE LURE (1979), were also published.
In the 1980s, a wealth of new writers came on the scene to focus on much more diverse characters than had ever been seen in mysteries. We had Grafton, Paretsky, and Muller's hard-boiled female PIs; Tony Hillerman's Native Americans, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee; Walter Mosley's African American, Easy Rawlins; Harry Kemelman's Rabbi David Small, and many more characters from numerous backgrounds. Sexuality was also becoming more acceptable to write about. Seeing the reading public's increasing interest in diversity and in gay-themed novels, mainstream presses such as Putnam, WW Norton, Delacorte, Kensington, Dell, and St. Martin's stepped up acquisition of gay work including mysteries.
Starting with the marvelous THE LITTLE DEATH (1986), Putnam picked up literary award winner Michael Nava's excellent series about defense lawyer Henry Rios. Rios, a new kind of gay character burst upon the scene, and Michael Nava's mysteries crossed over into mainstream readership.
Then in 1987, editor Michael Denneny founded a new imprint at St. Martin's Press called Stonewall Inn Editions, which was devoted to fiction and non-fiction about the gay and lesbian experience. Many gay authors suddenly found a home for their mysteries. Some authors moved from smaller presses to Stonewall Inn's imprint. Edward Phillips, who'd been published by the University of Toronto, saw the first two books of his "Sunday" series reprinted by Stonewall Inn. Other new gay male authors were "discovered" such as:
* Mark Richard Zubro - Tom Mason, a teacher in A SIMPLE SUBURBAN MURDER
St. Martin's Stonewall Inn wasn't the only press in on the action. Dell picked up RD Zimmerman's CLOSET (1995), Kensington published Michael Craft's FLIGHT DREAMS (1997), and Alyson reissued the out-of-print novels of Michael Nava and Joseph Hansen. Scores of lesbian books were also issued (which I will cover next month). It was a time of excitement and optimism amongst gay writers and readers.
It was also the beginning of the end of the trend.
The End of The Golden Age of Gay Mysteries?
In 2002, St Martin's Press announced that the Stonewall Inn imprint was closing acquisitions. In fact, they'd accepted very few submissions for the previous two or three years. A few authors were kept on and their book series were transferred to other editors, but it was the end of the road with Stonewall Inn for most of the gay writers. Other presses had already been divesting themselves of gay work, citing lack of profit. Though writers such as Nava, Hunter, Raphael, Craft, and Zimmerman had rabid audiences of eager fans, the numbers were deemed too small and the bottom line not profitable enough.
One gay author said, "We'd been the flavor of the day, but the fad passed, so they dumped us."
Suddenly authors with good track records and multiple books were scrambling for new homes for their books. Lev Raphael's gay work is now put out by Perseverance Press; Edward Phillips resumed publishing with Canadian presses; RD Zimmerman's Todd Mills series stopped in 1999 and Zimmerman is now focusing on historical/mystery fiction written under the name Robert Alexander; Fred Hunter's gay spy series stopped in 2001; Michael Nava seems to have stopped writing fiction altogether.
Don't Sound the Death Knell Yet
We're not seeing the volume of gay mysteries being published as we did during the recent heyday, but publishers like Alyson, GLB Publishers, Gay Men's Press (GMP), Harrington Park Press, Insomniac Press, Kensington, are Regal Crest Enterprise's Quest Imprint are now bringing out the lion's share of gay men's work. And St. Martin's is still publishing Grant Michaels, John Morgan Wilson, and both of Mark Richard Zubro's series.
Some of the recent and upcoming books by intriguing mystery and thriller authors include these below.
Anthony Bidulka - TAPAS ON THE RAMBLAS (2nd book in the Russell Quant series, Insomniac Press, 2005) Charity Wiser, matriarch of the Wiser clan by rank of wealth and power, is an indomitable provocateur - and private detective Russell Quant's newest employer. From the delight of tapas and sweet sangria in Spain to the bitter taste of death in Sicily, Quant connects and clashes with friends and foes in a series of unforgettable locales.
David Stukas - BICEPS OF DEATH (4th book in the Robert Wilsop/Michael Stark series, 2004) When someone slips a mysterious CD into Robert's bag at the local gay gym, he and his partner Michael are unwittingly dragged into a murder investigation that includes some of New York City's most powerful men.
Dorien Gray - THE PAPER MIRROR (10th book in the Dick Hardesty series, 2005) Dick and his lover, Jonathan, are invited to gay event of the year. Jonathan, who loves to read, is particularly anxious to go because his favorite author will be there. At the party, a dead body is discovered at the bottom of the basement stairs. At first the police think it's just an accident, but Dick is asked to investigate the murder.
Greg Herren - MURDER IN THE RUE ST. ANN (2nd book in the Chanse MacLeod series, Kensington, 2005) When sexy gay private eye Chanse MacLeod investigates the financial shenanigans of club promoter Mark Williams, he discovers that not only does Williams have ties to the New Orleans judiciary, he also has ties to Chanse's lover, Paul-a connection that reveals secrets about Paul's past that Chanse had never guessed and now wishes he didn't know. When Paul disappears, it seems his past has caught up with him in a terrifying way.
Greg Lilly - FINGERING THE FAMILY JEWELS (1st book in the Derek Mason series, Regal Crest Enterprises, 2004) When Derek Mason arrives in Charlotte, North Carolina for the funeral of his aunt, he is faced with the family who sent him away because he was gay. Derek uncovers mysteries in the death of the family gardener, and secrets and lies unravel as Derek digs into the family history with the help of hunky reporter Daniel.
John Morgan Wilson - MOTH AND FLAME (6th book in the Benjamin Justice series, St Martin's, 2005) Bruce Bibby, a freelance writer, is murdered during an apparent burglary, and Benjamin Justice is hired to complete the dead man's assignment, which leads him to become involved in the murder investigation. When the leader of the local preservation group is found murdered, Justice must unravel the secrets that surround the murders or let an innocent suffer for another's crimes.
John Morgan Wilson - RHAPSODY IN BLOOD (7th book in the Benjamin Justice series, St Martin's, March, 2006) Disgraced journalist Benjamin Justice, at loose ends between jobs, takes a short vacation with a friend, LA Times reporter Alexandra Templeton, to a movie set at a faded resort hotel in the California desert. The film being shot is about the last lynching of a local black man. The brutal murder of a feared Hollywood gossip journalist enmeshes in two old deaths and a new murder as he attempts to uncover the truth before another falls victim.
John F. Parker - COME CLEAN (Kevin J. Porter standalone, December 2005) A diabolical murder is committed by a serial killer who believes Hannibal Lecter would envy his techniques. PI Kevin J. Porter takes you on a breathless trail in and around Hollywood North in Vancouver, Canada, as he tries to bag the psycho murderer. The reader is usually a jump ahead of Kevin Porter-privy to his foibles and flaws-and Porter has a lot of secrets. Will Porter catch the killer before he kills again?
Lev Raphael - TROPIC OF MURDER (6th book in the Nick Hoffman series, Perseverance Press, 2004) When problems in academia stress Nick to the max, his partner Stefan suggests an idyllic week in the Caribbean. Serenity Island, however, proves to be anything but serene. Once again, scholar Nick Hoffman, who grew up in NY without even being mugged, finds himself face-to-face with murder. Vacation in paradise becomes a nightmare, and on a tiny island, there's nowhere to run.
Mark Richard Zubro - FILE UNDER DEAD) When Chicago high school teacher Tom Mason finds the severed head of the director of the clinic in a file cabinet, Tom must sort out the murder before an innocent takes the fall for this very unusual crime. The director, called Snarly Bitch behind his back because of his unpleasant demeanor, had a particularly long enemies' list and Tom has to deal with a long suspect list, a fairly indifferent police force, and the welfare of students
Mark Richard Zubro - NERDS WHO KILL (8th book in the Paul Turner series, St Martin's, 2005) The latest in Zubro's series featuring Paul Turner, a gay Chicago Police Detective with two teenage sons and a propensity for high profile murder cases.
Phillip Scott - MARDI GRAS MURDERS (4th book in the Marc & Paul series, Alyson, 2005 reprint) Against the backdrop of state elections, Phillip Scott's likable but unlikely amateur sleuths from Australia, Marc and Paul, find themselves investigating a series of bizarre murders. But the investigation is hampered when Paul finds unexpected fame on television, and Marc must cope with a sexy new neighbor and a weepy ex-boyfriend.
Although there seems to have been a bump in the road right around the advent of the new millennium, I can only hope that the subgenre of the gay mystery will gradually rise from the ashes and continue on.
There are many talented authors whose lead characters are gay. Some of those books - for example, those of David Stukas and Dorien Grey - contain graphic sex as well as violence and mystery. Others written by authors like Mark Richard Zubro and John Morgan Wilson focus more on the relationships and little on sexuality. But in all these books, the character's sexual orientation often has an effect on how he approaches the world and how he functions as a sleuth. I find that fascinating and hope you will, too.
Next Month: Stay tuned for an article on "The Lesbian Detective Novel"
For Part 2 - The Lesbian Detective Novel