Gay & Lesbian Detective Novels
Part 2 - The Lesbian Detective Novel
Last issue we focused on the gay detective novel and how cultural issues of the day get drawn into plots and themes in crime fiction. Many of the same phenomena are apparent in lesbian detective novels, but there are some differences between gay and lesbian works.
In the Beginning
With the publication of The Leavenworth Case in 1878, Anna Katherine Green became the first woman to write a detective novel and to create a female detective (Amelia Butterworth). Green was a religious, Victorian-style woman who adamantly opposed suffrage, but her father had been a trial lawyer, and all her life she'd been in the company of men in law enforcement, which gave her inside information about forensics, crime, and punishment. With the exception of a writing career filled with thrillers and detective stories (from which she far out-earned her husband), she was first and foremost a subservient woman who believed a woman's place was in the home.
Anna Katherine Green would be shocked and dismayed to see what direction lesbian writers have taken detective fiction!
Still, it wasn't until almost 100 years later, long after Green's death, that a lesbian sleuth graced the pages of published fiction. M. F. Beal's Angel Dance, published in 1977, was the first of its kind. It featured a Latina PI named Kat Guerrera, an angry, complex, and militant character caught up in a case that questioned societal dictates about gender, sexual orientation, race, and class. Though Eve Zaremba's A Reason To Kill (1978) followed soon after, the novel's PI main character, wasn't identifiable as a lesbian until the second book, Work For a Million (1986).
Late to the Party
Unlike male authors who, in the early 1960s, began creating gay detectives and exploring homosexual themes, publication for lesbian mystery writers didn't get going in earnest until the mid-80s. I've heard various explanations for this, including the statement that women's "consciousness" was slower to be raised, but the fact of the matter is that we'll never know how many novels with lesbian characters were submitted to mainstream publishing houses and summarily rejected because of their lesbian content.
So the first lesbian detective novels were published by small lesbian presses which originally sprang up in the 1970s. The author who gets credit for kick-starting the genre is Katherine V. Forrest. With her first novel, Amateur City (1984), Forrest cracked things open with the first lesbian professional police detective ever in print. Her character, Kate Delafield, is a former Marine and an LAPD homicide detective. Delafield's appearance as a new kind of hard-boiled detective is pre-dated by only three other writers' straight characters: Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone (1977), Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone (1982), and Sara Paretsky's VI Warshawski (1982).
After 1984, a number of talented lesbian authors came on the scene, including: Barbara Wilson, Val (VH) McDermid, Ellen Hart, Mary Wings, Sarah Dreher, Claire McNab, and Nikki Baker. All of them were published in the 1980s by small lesbian presses such as Naiad and Seal.
Genesis of a Serious Genre
Lesbian and gay writers have approached the mystery genre in somewhat different ways. The men began their foray via campy, often humorous or satirical novels. Lesbians, on the other hand, tended to be dead serious, openly taking on everything from sexism, racism, and corruption to capitalism, the patriarchy, and violence against women.
In a traditional mystery, the balance of the community is shattered by a crime, and it's the sleuth's responsibility to figure out the guilty party and try to restore order and justice. In most lesbian novels, the traditional form is turned on its head because the community and the reigning power structure not only exclude or reject the sleuth, but are often the source of the crime. And yet, the sleuth has to do her job or satisfy her curiosity or face down the criminals anyway. In order to succeed, the detective must battle powerful forces, often with little support. She has to get help and encouragement from outside-usually from friends, a lover, and/or the lesbian community.
Sex, Coming Out, and Intimate Relationships
Another key element to lesbian mystery novels has been the inclusion of significant romantic and/or sexual interests, which are usually elements or sub-plots many mainstream novels tend to minimize for their straight characters. In the process of solving a crime, most lesbian detective characters also work at resolving serious relationship and sexual issues. Graphic sex and drama-filled conflicts are common. For some readers, the emotional pay-off from the relationship story or the coming out sub-plot is just as important as the solution to the crime.
Many authors I have spoken to-both lesbian and straight-have said they've come to believe that in order for a lesbian mystery novel or series to crossover into the mainstream, significant exploration of the lesbian character's personal life must be omitted. Otherwise mainstream presses will not publish the author. Nicola Griffith, author of The Blue Place and Stay, recently told AfterEllen.com: "Lesbian mysteries, that is, those books which are marketed as such, as opposed to crime novels that have lesbian characters, are focused on how the main character feels about being a lesbian. Often they are concerned with the main character's coming out. This tends to overwhelm almost every other aspect of the book. They become, in my opinion, unbalanced."
Though many mainstream/straight mystery novels focus on how a main character feels about any number of things (love interests, death and loss, infidelity, substance abuse, sexual conquests, violence, and much more), these issues aren't so readily accepted when they come from a lesbian point of view.
Even when a novel features little reference to coming out or to sex, apparently just the presence of lesbian characters is enough to cause problems. Wildly popular author Marcia Muller, who has written three separate series, four standalones, and 23 mystery novels in the Sharon McCone series recently published Cyanide Wells, a standalone mystery thriller. One of the main characters, a straight man named Matt, searches for the ex-wife who disappeared from his life under suspicious circumstances. He was never charged with her death but for fourteen years has searched for her to clear his name. When he finds her, she not only has a child but is in a lesbian relationship with a small-town female newspaper editor. Part mystery, part thriller, the novel was a satisfying crime story handled deftly by the award-winning, best-selling author. And yet, the book had disappointing sales. Is the mere presence of lesbian characters that offputting?
On the flip side, Tracey Shellito, author of the new novel, Personal Protection, had this to say in an interview TheLLife.com about what lesbian mysteries need: "More sex! Seems to me we're wimping out by getting the readers all hot and bothered then not delivering the goods. It doesn't have to be totally pornographic, but metaphorically, cutting to rolling waves is a cop out. I'd like to see a little harder crime, so we can compete with the guys, that's what I'm aiming towards myself."
I suspect that reality lies somewhere between Shellito's and Griffith's assessment. After querying many authors, few were optimistic about crossing over to the mainstreasm with their novels. I found many gravely concerned about both the marketability of lesbian fiction and their opportunities to earn a living writing in the genre. It comes as no surprise to lesbian authors that the vast majority of books containing graphic sex or heavy emphasis on lesbian relationships are almost never published by anyone but small presses.
The Big Publishers Offered a Welcome Then the Door
When Naiad Press came into existence in 1973, they focused on lesbian literature and romantic popular fiction, but by the 1980s and onward, Naiad started publishing a number of lesbian mystery authors including Katherine V. Forrest, Rose Beecham, Therese Szymanski, Kate Calloway, Claire McNab, Dorothy Tell, Pat Welch, and Jaye Maiman (all of whom still have their works in print). Seal Press (established in 1976) published crime fiction writers such as Barbara Wilson and Ellen Hart, and New Victoria (also estab.1976) has published Sarah Dreher, Jean Marcy, Kate Allen, and more. Other feminist presses put out occasional mysteries.
Then in 1987, editor Michael Denneny founded a new imprint at St. Martin's Press called Stonewall Inn Editions, and a few lesbian authors found homes there-most notably Randye Lordon, Ellen Hart, and Phyllis Knight. In addition, Putnam, WW Norton, Avon, Delacorte, Kensington, and Dell stepped up acquisition of lesbian work including mysteries.
As I noted in "The Gay Detective,"(Nov/Dec 2005) "gay and lesbian mystery writers achieved a sort of Golden Age which lasted a little over a decade, mostly in the 1990s. But by 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 skeleton crew of authors were kept on and their book series were transferred to various editors. Other mainstream presses had already been divesting themselves of gay work, citing lack of profit. The boom was over."
Not Such a Positive Picture for The Girls
In the Nov/Dec 2005 article about gay mysteries, one section was entitled, "Don't Sound the Death Knell Yet," and I expressed hope for the continued issuance of gay mysteries. New York presses are occasionally publishing the guy's books, and St. Martin's still regularly publishes Grant Michaels, John Morgan Wilson, and both of Mark Richard Zubro's series.
But I can't say the same for lesbian authors. Formidable lesbian authors such as Rita Mae Brown (who writes a non-lesbian cat series) and Val McDermid (who writes the gritty Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series and standalones as well) are carried by mainstream presses, but they have tended to focus lately upon crime fiction with heterosexual protagonists. There are a few heavy hitters with lesbian main characters include: Katherine V. Forrest, whose books are doing well with Berkeley Prime Crime, Nicola Griffith's second mystery was issued by Doubleday/Nan Talese, and both Ellen Hart and Randye Lordon, who are still with St. Martin's Press. JM Stewart, whose Micky Knight series had been published to wide acclaim by WW Norton is now publishing with both Bella Books and Bywater Press. And though straight author Laurie R. King's fantastic Kate Martinelli series is published by Bantam, we haven't seen a new title added to the series since 2000. In fact, at a recent bookstore signing, Laurie King responded to questions about that series by saying that her publisher prefers her to write the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series because it sells better. Why? Simply because the Kate Martinelli sleuth is a lesbian?
In her landmark resource, THE GAY DETECTIVE NOVEL (2005), Judith Markowitz writes: "Despite the attempt to reach a crossover audience, gay/lesbian detective fiction remains ghettoized, unlike mysteries featuring African American and heterosexual women main characters. Furthermore, mainstream bookstores still allocate very little shelf space to gay/lesbian mysteries The end result is continued invisibility of this body of literature which, in turn, restricts the visibility of lesbian and gay life as a whole" (p. 6).
This list is not exhaustive, but here are some of the recent books by intriguing lesbian mystery and thriller authors (all published in 2005):
Anne Seale - FINDING MRS. WRIGHT (2nd in the Jo Jacuzzo series, Alyson) When Jo's best friend asks her to track down an old flame, she's off to Oklahoma and a new adventure in Tornado Alley in a comedy thriller rich with unusual, eccentric characters and a delightfully offbeat rural setting.
Brenda Weathers - MURDER ON THE MOTHER ROAD (Standalone, New Victoria Press) When Libby stops for coffee at the Knight's Rest Motel and Café in the desert, she stumbles across an old college sorority sister, her dead brother, and their assorted crazy relatives rushing in to claim the family fortune. Another murder occurs which Libby tries to solve while the owner of Knight's Rest tries to turn her money-pit motel into a Murder Museum, in keeping with the glory days of the famous Mother Road.
Claire McNab - THE QUOKKA QUESTION (3rd in the Kylie Kendall series, Alyson) Kylie Kendall is hired for a routine security detail for a keynote address at the UCLA's Global Marsupial Symposium, but when a murder occurs, Kylie must investigate his death. Can Kylie keep from mixing business with oh-so-much pleasure?
Claire McNab - MURDER AT RANDOM (6th in the Denise Cleever series, Bella Books) Cleever infilitrates a chilling terrorist group that pays amateur contract killers a bounty for brutally violent random murders that attract maximum publicity. National or international media exposure garners higher fees. Widespread panic sweeps the nation and the lives of thousands are in Denise's hands.
Elizabeth Sims - EASY STREET (4th in the Lillian Byrd series, Alyson) For a few extra bucks Lillian Byrd agrees to help an old friend renovate her house, but by the end of the first day on the job there is a partially demolished wall, a mysterious stash of cash, and a dead body.
Ellen Hart - THE IRON GIRL (13th in the Jane Lawless series, St. Martin's) When Jane Lawless finds a gun in her dead partner's briefcase, she begins to wonder about Christine's involvement in an infamous 1987 triple homicide. As Jane begins an emotional journey into her partner's past, she comes face to face with some hard truths -- truths not only about the real identity of the murderer, but about her own life and loss.
Jaime Clevenger - CALL SHOTGUN (2nd in the Kelly Haldon series, Bella Books) Kelly gets pulled back into the world of private investigation and undercover work and becomes entangled in the investigation of the death of an ex-military officer involved in a gay political action group. As the clues to the military officer's death unfold, Kelly finds herself drawn to another woman involved in the investigation - Nora, the dead officer's lawyer.
Jane DiLuccio - RELATIONSHIPS CAN BE MURDER (1st in the Dee DelValle series, New Victoria Press) Dee DelValle has always regretted her fling with sexy LA TV newscaster Sheila Shelbourne. Not only did it cause a break up with her longtime lover, but now Dee is a suspect in the anchorwoman's murder and must summon help from her three best buddies, Felicia, Tully, and Jenny to dig behind the scenes of TV broadcasting where ratings can be a matter of life and death literally.
Jeane Harris - A GRAVE OPENING (1st in the Delia Ironfoot series, Bywater Books) Archeologist Delia Ironfoot is unexpectedly called by her estranged grandfather back to the place where her father grew up. As Delia tries to untangle the web of family secrets, she finds herself caught between two women while using all her skills and wits to excavate graves that hold long buried secrets and recent betrayals.
Jennifer Fulton - DARK DREAMER (1st in the Heartstoppers series, Regal Crest Enterprises) Best-selling horror author Rowe Devlin abandons life in Manhattan for an old Victorian house in Maine. But Dark Harbor Cottage is a far cry from the tranquil writing environment she envisoned and soon finds herself embroiled in a supernatural mystery more bizarre and frightening than anything she's ever written.
Jenny Roberts - DEAD RECKONING (3rd in the Cameron Mcgill series, Diva Books) Cameron McGill, now a private investigator, is following yet another unfaithful husband on a client's behalf. But Charles Wilson turns out to be a cross-dresser rather than an adulterer and, when he is murdered outside a sleazy bar in Manchester's Gay Village, Cameron and the bartender Lin Lee are left to face the police - and the possibility that this is only the first in a series of hate killings.
Jessica Thomas - TURNING THE TABLES (2nd in the Alex Peres series, Bella Books) From ghosties and ghoulies and long leggity beasties: something evil stalks Provincetown on a festive Halloween night. PI Alex Peres, however, has her mind focused on fun and perhaps romance. Only in the cold light of morning does word spread of a gay man's murder. Worse yet, the guilty perpetrators could be one of their own.
Julia Lieber - THE BLUE SCORPION (2nd in the Loy Lombard series, Alyson) Who was Natalie Wolf? A Russian mail-order bride married to an oafish husband? A desperate woman who disappeared, trying to escape from an international prostitution ring? Or the deadly third in a triangle of blackmail and white slavery? Hired by Natalie's husband Abel to find his missing wife, Loy Lombard learns quickly the pitfalls of finding a missing person whose identity keeps changing.
Katherine V. Forrest - WOMEN OF MYSTERY: AN ANTHOLOGY (Anthology of stories, Harrington Park Press) Short lesbian suspense fiction from the best known lesbian mystery writers in the business. Edited by Katherine V. Forrest, author of the three-time Lambda Literary Award-winning Kate Delafield mystery series, this book contains an unprecedented collection of never-before-published stories of mystery and imagination.
Kim Baldwin - HUNTER'S PURSUIT (Standalone thriller, Bold Strokes Books) When the hunter becomes the hunted, do you trust your instincts or your heart? As a killer for hire, Katarzyna Demetrious has grown weary of her violent and solitary life. Can she overcome the assassins on her trail? And could the woman she rescues and is unexpectedly attracted to be the deadliest of them all?
Lindy Cameron - BLOOD GUILT (2nd in the Kit O'Malley series, Bywater Books) PI Kit O'Malley is paid big money to find out what Celia Robinson's philandering husband Geoffrey is up to with a blonde, a redhead, and entrepreneur and his shady business cohorts. A body is found floating in the Robinsons' ornamental fish pond, and after the discovery of another body and a near miss with a homicidal driver, Kit must find the truth.
Lori L. Lake - HAVE GUN WE'LL TRAVEL (3rd in the Gun series, Regal Crest Enterprises) When St. Paul police officers Dez Reilly and Jaylynn Savage take off on a camping trip to northern Minnesota with two friends, they never expected to find themselves caught in the whirlwind created when two escaped convicts, law enforcement, and desperate Russian mobsters clash near a secluded prison. Jaylynn is taken hostage, and Dez must get her back before it's too late. It's a race to the finish in this action-suspense thriller.
Lynn Ames - THE VALUE OF VALOR (3rd in the Kate/Jay trilogy, Intaglio Publications) Katherine Kyle is the press secretary to the president of the United States. Her lover, Jamison Parker, is a respected writer for Time magazine. Separated by unthinkable tragedy, the two must struggle to survive against impossible odds in this hair-raising thriller.
Lynne Jamneck - DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE (1st in the Sam Skellar series, Bella Books) FBI Agent Samantha Skellar and her partner Robert Munroe are on the trail of a possible serial killer who has been terrorizing the suburban neighborhoods of Seattle. Not only does Sam have to cope with the difficulties of her job, but a mysterious stalker is after her.
Pat Welch - A TIME TO CAST AWAY (8th in the Helen Black series, Bella Books) After serving time in prison, former cop Helen Black returns home to Berkeley. Struggling through her days with dull temp jobs, she meets Alice one night at a local bar. A few days after their brief encounter, Helen stops by Alice's apartment - only to find the woman dead and herself on the hot seat.
Patty G. Henderson - THE MISSING PAGE (3rd in the Brenda Strange series, Bella Books) A man who claims that he inherited a rare, handwritten manuscript that has been stolen hires Brenda to find it. But before Brenda can even get started, the man's decapitated body turns up in Spain. It's a heart-pounding race against time for Brenda to find the killers and prevent her own head from being offed.
Radclyffe - JUSTICE SERVED (5th in the Rebecca Frye/Catherine Rawlings series, Bold Strokes Books) The hunt for an informant in the ranks draws Lieutenant Rebecca Frye, her lover Doctor Catherine Rawlings, and Officer Dellon Mitchell into a deadly game of hide and seek with an underworld kingpin who traffics in human souls.
Randye Lordon - SON OF A GUN (7th in the Sydney Sloane series, St.Martin's) PI Sydney Sloane's friend, and father of her godchild, is shot in the hallway of his New York apartment building. Just after the shooting, his wife gets an angry, vengeful call from a man claiming to be the son she gave up for adoption in her teens. With four days to find some sort of solution, Sydney agrees to investigate the adopted child to protect the family of her friend, who is clinging to life in the hospital.
Rose Beecham - GRAVE SILENCE (1st in the Jude Devine series, Bold Strokes Books) Montezuma County Sheriff's detective, Jude Devine doesn't face too many challenges based in the remote Paradox Valley, but when the body of local teenager shows up with a stake through her heart, Jude must lead an investigation no one wants to touch.
Stella Duffy - MOUTHS OF BABES (5th in the Saz Martin series, Serpent's Tail Books) Saz Martin, settling into motherhood with her partner and their baby daughter Matilda, has vowed not to take on any more PI cases, wanting nothing to threaten her family's peaceful life. But when her former school friend Will Gallagher - the now famous TV personality - comes calling, there's no way she can hide from her own dark memories.
Therese Szymanski - WHEN FIRST WE PRACTICE (7th in the Brett Higgins series, Bella Books) Brett Higgins and her girlfriend Allie are once again caught in the middle of murder and intrigue when Allie's former partner pulls a gun at a local nightclub and Brett is forced to intervene. Bullets in a dead body found the next day match Allie's ex-partner's gun, and Brett will use all of her charm to gain information and solve the murder.
Tracey Shellito - PERSONAL PROTECTION (1st in the Randall McGonnigal series, Gardners Books) Randall McGonnigal, a personal bodyguard, is called frantically one night by her lover Tori's mother, claiming that Tori, a lap dancer at the erotic Blackpool Club, has been raped. An investigation into the attack uncovers a host of seamy secrets. As more of Tori's co-workers are attacked, Randall races against time to protect the woman she loves and the other girls as well.
Val McDermid - HOSTAGE TO MURDER (6th in the Lindsay Gordon series, Bywater Books) When a local car dealer's stepson is kidnapped, Lindsay and Rory are invited to trade journalism for detection. The trail leads them to St. Petersburg and a dangerous snatch-back operation that turns out to be a bigger, more violent piece of business than either of them could have guessed - and one which will test Lindsay to her absolute limits.
What Will the Future Be?
There is definitely a market for lesbian crime fiction. The audience, though not nearly as large as the mainstream readership, is rabid and eager to read. Stores that cater to lesbian readers can cultivate steady business from those readers for lesbian mysteries and for mainstream crime fiction.
But the bottom line is that crime fiction by, for, and about lesbians is primarily published in trade paperback by small lesbian/feminist presses who typically have a difficult time getting their titles into both independent and chain bookstores. With smaller marketing influence and, often, shoestring budgets, lesbian crime fiction is a tough genre to write for.
The one good sign I see is that lesbian mysteries have never been more popular than now, and the Internet has made books from small lesbian and feminist presses available as never before. Perhaps that Golden Age, where multitudes of presses published gay and lesbian works, will come upon us again.