Building a Mystery: Why are sleuth stories the most widely read gay and lesbian books?

AdvocatelogoBy Etelka Lehoczky
The Advocate, June 19, 2001

Blue McCarron lives in the desert in an old motel, her closest companion a Doberman named Bronte, her free time spent taking long, parching hikes and plunging nude into her swimming pool. Benjamin Justice chews over the past in a rented room, steadily imbibing alcohol to keep recrimination at bay, yet impressing everyone he meets with his bitter genius.

They’re perfectly individual, yet instantly recognizable as two of a type: the often brooding, always remote, yet perversely adorable heroes and heroines of lesbian and gay mystery novels. They may dwell in the oft-belittled realm of “genre fiction,” but sleuths like Abigail Padgett’s dog-loving Blue and John Morgan Wilson’s alcoholic Benjamin Justice are among the most beloved characters in our literature. And they’re appealing not in spite of, but because of, their inability to fit into the world.

As misfits, these protagonists are not much different from those who read about them. For decades lesbian and gay mystery fans have known there’s something about this genre that creates a shared understanding of what it’s like to be marginal. As Hostage author R.D. Zimmerman says, “Mysteries give you a forum to say an awful lot about gay life.”

Mysteries have proved to be one of the strongest and most resilient genres of gay and lesbian publishing. At a time when small presses are struggling, mysteries provide an important lifeline. It’s no accident that new lesbian publisher Bella Books’ list is dominated by mysteries; so was that of its predecessor, Naiad Press, longtime publisher of lesbian stars Claire McNab and Katherine V. Forrest.

Nor is the action strictly confined to gays and the presses that serve us. Many authors, such as Michael Nava and New Orleans–based lesbian writer J.M. Redmann, have a straight following. St. Martin’s Press devotes a portion of its Stonewall Inn Editions imprint to gay mysteries. And in 1997, John Morgan Wilson became the first gay author to win the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for Simple Justice, his latest Benjamin Justice book.

“The dynamics [of] being gay feed into the layers of truth in a mystery,” Zimmerman says. “I know how to lie very well. I lied to myself, I lied to my family, I lied to everyone around me. I know the layers of secrets. That’s what a mystery’s about: sifting through the layers to get to the fundamental [truth].”

It’s no wonder gay mysteries date back practically to the beginning of the gay liberation movement, with George Baxt’s 1966 A Queer Kind of Death. (Lesbian mysteries came along a little later, when Katherine Forrest and Barbara Wilson published books in the early ’80s.) Contemporary authors such as Michael Nava acknowledge an unbroken thread connecting them to pioneers like Baxt and Joseph Hansen, who began writing his Dave Brandstetter books in the ’70s. Nava credits Hansen’s books, which are currently being reissued by Alyson Publications, with showing him how to turn his experiences into fiction.

“He used the mystery to actually explore what it meant to be gay,” Nava says. “In the classic American mystery, the private investigator is an outsider who’s generally viewed [as] fairly disreputable by the people who hire turn. So if you are in fact an outsider because you’re gay or a woman or African-American, it’s a very interesting vehicle to explore the whole issue of being on the fringe.”

Of course, the fringe isn’t a comfortable place to dwell alone–and mystery readers don’t have to. The surprising variety of fictional queer detectives, whether professional or amateur, makes it possible for almost anyone to find a hero to love. These characters’ personal quirks are as colorful and various as their day jobs. Accommodating Michael Craft’s and Ellen Hart’s pleasant protagonists as well as the beleaguered iconoclasts sketched by Redmann and gay author Lev Raphael, the genre makes room for any personality or lifestyle.

“There’s a wider variety of characters in mysteries than in, say, romance novels, where the characters all have to be gorgeous,” says Therese Szymanski, whose When Evil Changes Face is nominated for a Lambda Literary Award this year. “In mysteries you get characters like Martha Miller’s [Bertha Brannon] in Nine Nights on the Windy Tree–a slightly overweight black lawyer who has a drag abuse problem.”

Such a portrayal would have frightened activists in the early days of the gay rights movement, when it was commonly understood that the community had to keep its dirty laundry private. But that changed with AIDS. As the death toll mounted throughout the ’80s, readers began to yearn for stories that would help make sense of it all. The mystery format, in which lies and uncertainty inevitably gave way to safety and truth, provided reassurance.

“There’s ordinary life, and then it’s totally disrupted by evil–death–and then it returns to normal at the end,” Barbara Wilson says. “I think that’s reassuring to people–here’s ordinary life, and then it’s disrupted, and then ordinary life resumes.” Richard Stevenson and Nava were among those who explicitly addressed AIDS in their books. When Nava’s protagonist Henry Rios watched his lover die in The Death of Friends, it inspired an outpouring of shared stories and feelings.

“I think a lot of my gay male fans think Rios is a real person,” Nava says, laughing. “Not literally, of course, but what he’s gone through really struck a chord. One guy sent me the memorial service of his lover’s funeral. And he told me in his letter that as he was reading certain conversations between Rios and Josh in The Death of Friends, `it was as if you had eavesdropped on the conversations I was having with my boyfriend before he died.'”

Unfortunately, readers’ affection hasn’t necessarily translated into steady paychecks for the authors they love. However important they are to their gay fans, these writers need straight readers too if they’re going to make ends meet. But though Nava, Zimmerman, Ellen Hart, and others were taken up by major publishers in the early ’90s, mainstream success proved elusive. John Morgan Wilson, for example, won the prestigious Edgar award for Simple Justice and has seen his books go into second and third printings, and yet he was dropped by his publisher.

“[The publisher] thought the Benjamin Justice series would cross over to a very broad audience, and it just didn’t happen. And I don’t think it’s going to happen, frankly, or at least [not] for a long time,” Wilson says. “I think it’s happened more for lesbian mysteries than gay male mysteries. Straight male readers in particular are just extremely uneasy with gay male literary material, especially if it’s sexually frank, which mine is.”

Today, Wilson is placing his financial hopes on a series with a heterosexual main character, as is Craft. Hart, who writes both a lesbian and a “straight” series, has seen firsthand how the bottom line varies. “[The lesbian series] simply doesn’t sell as well,” she says resignedly.

Still, it’s quite possible that straight mystery fans will eventually come to appreciate (and pay for) stories of gay and lesbian lives. Barbara Wilson has had the satisfaction of seeing her novel Gaudi Afternoon made into a film starring Judy Davis and Juliette Lewis. Though lead character Cassandra Reilly’s sexuality is somewhat muted for the screen, a lesbian undercurrent remains.

In the end, Zimmerman insists, it all comes back to the story. He still has faith in the reader’s judgment and continues to believe that good work will eventually win the recognition it deserves–whatever the audience’s orientation.

“Look at Will & Grace,” he says. “That’s wildly successful in the straight community because it’s just a very funny show. It’s the same here. I don’t think there’s been a big break-out book with a gay main character yet, but I do think it will happen.”

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