Down These Mean Streets
A Gay Man Must Also Go

by Drewey Wayne Gunn

Though there have occasionally been speculation about the sexuality of such private investigators as Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe and even Philip Marlowe, the first indisputably, openly gay detective was Francis "Frank" Morley, the hero of Lou Rand’s appropriately named 1960 novel The Gay Detective.

Newly arrived in “Bay City” (i.e., San Francisco) to continue the agency he has inherited, Frank, when asked why he needs a gun permit, “just rolled his eyes, put his hand on his hip, tossed back his wavy hair and shrieked... that he’d have a helluva time beating off some attacker with a mascara brush....”

But don’t let the campiness fool you: Frank proves that he can hold his own in a fight. He is adept at several sports, especially boxing. He is a good person to have at your back in a tight place, and with only a little help from his straight aide, Tiger Olsen, he successfully brings down a murderous ring targeting gays for the purposes of blackmail and drug-dealing.

Beginning with Morley, there have been a long line of over ninety gay private eyes, insurance investigators, investigative journalists, and lawyers — some appearing in only a singleton; more appearing in series — mixed in with the gay police detectives, FBI agents, and amateur sleuths. Many things besides their sexuality — though obviously that is basic — set these gay private investigators apart from their straight counterparts.

One of the major things that sets the gay detective apart is one that I hope will soon disappear, and the sooner the better. If the old adage holds that it takes a thief to catch a thief — that is, that one must think like a criminal in order to apprehend a criminal — then the gay P.I. is singularly well placed. For several decades, depending upon which state he practiced in, if he were at all sexually active, he was by law literally a criminal. Even today a gay man remains a criminal in the eyes of many.

Thus the gay private investigator, along with his police counterpart, until very recently found himself in the peculiar position of working on the side of the law while he himself was an outlaw, becoming a bizarre kind of double agent, if you will. Having to maintain a cover gave him a keen perspective by which to view the world of the criminal, a decided advantage that, I would argue, over, say, Sam Spade or Lew Archer.

Jake Lieberman, the L.A. private investigator in Cowboy Blues (1985) by Stephen Lewis (i.e., Teri White), provides a good example of the contradictions with which such a sleuth finds himself engaging. A Vietnam veteran, he also was (from necessity) a former teenage hustler. The case, involving the disappearance of a rodeo competitor, takes Jake into a sleazy California senatorial campaign and up against a psychopathic pederast. Maintaining a straight facade among the entourage traveling with the rodeo, all the while Jake finds himself falling in love with a law student he has met in a gay bar. Just consider all the ironies in this simple summary. 

Unlike most other minorities, the gay detective has the ability to conceal the quality that sets him apart, should he so desire. He can pass as straight, or he can be openly gay, depending upon what the circumstances call for. Frank Morley makes this point clear to a straight federal narcotics agent: “I understand [...] that you tried to work your way into a few places, but just didn’t seem to fit. The point here seems to be that I look to be more the type, and can probably crash this outfit somewhere.”

But when the occasion demands that Frank shed his campy persona, he easily does so: “his words were now clipped and sincere, and his tone distinguished by a dangerously steely quality.” San Francisco P.I. Derek Thompson, who appears in Kelly Bradford’s Footprints (1988), sums up: “The secret of my success (is my ability) to fool all but the right people about who I really am.” 

This chameleon quality is second nature for the gay detective best known to straight readers: Dave Brandstetter, creation of Shamus Lifetime Achievement writer Joseph Hansen. Appearing in twelve novels, a novella, and a short story, Dave easily passes as straight, falling naturally into the mold created by Spade and Marlowe, and does so when it suits his purposes. In fact, while never denying his sexuality to himself, his friends, or the people he encounters when such identification is helpful, unlike Frank Morley he normally remains guarded and never flaunts his difference. His character formed in the days before the gay liberation movement, Dave even admits he is prejudiced against those who are effeminate or flamboyantly out, a source of tension between him and his first partner (who has died of cancer before the series begins). A Los Angeles death claims investigator working for his father’s company until he is forced into early retirement after his father’s death, Dave ages naturally across the novels, from his first appearance, age 44, in Fadeout (1970) to his death in A Country of Old Men (1993). Although a few of his cases focus on gay victims, the majority do not. Perhaps for these reasons he seems to threaten straight male readers ar less than do other gay private eyes. 

When a case involves a gay victim or a suspected gay killer, often the gay P.I. is called in specifically because of his sexual credentials. This happens with Dave, as is routinely the case in the Dick Hardesty series by Dorien Grey (beginning with The 9th Man, first published in 2000).

L.A. lawyer Henry Rios, the hero of the brilliant series by Michael Nava, accepts only clients in cases involving gay victims. These heroes identify naturally with the people in such cases to a much greater degree, I think, than normally occurs with straight detectives. A prime example is Nava’s How Town (1990), in which victim, murderers, chief suspect, and Henry have in common that, while children, all were victims of various kinds of abuse — sexual, mental, or physical. Though such emotional involvement could cloud the investigator’s judgment, it provides him with a passion and a drive for justice on some deeply intimate level. Above all, he brings innate knowledge to the case that can help him succeed where a straight detective might easily be led astray.

Such occurs, for example, in L.A. investigative journalist Benjamin Justice’s first case, the Edgar Award-winning Simple Justice (1996) by John Morgan Wilson, in which a closeted teenager would rather confess to a murder he didn’t commit than admit to his family that he is gay. The fact, so obvious to Ben, is absolutely unthinkable for the straight L.A. police detectives. 

Sometimes the difference between gay and straight viewpoints is played out with almost comic effect. This is especially true in the early novels of the Don Strachey series by Richard Stevenson. The Albany (NY) P.I. first appeared, along with his life mate Timmy Callahan, in Death Trick in 1981; his tenth and latest adventure is The 38 Million Dollar Smile (2009). He has also become the basis for a series of made-for-television films. Strachey continues in Morley’s best tradition, substituting wisecracks for camp but being just as politically astute and sarcastic. In the beginning he is constantly butting heads, figuratively, with homophobic police detective Ned Bowman, who always suspects fags of the worst imaginable and ends up invariably making an ass of himself.

Straight Saskatoon police detective Darren Kirsch is a more congenial character in Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant, P.I., series, beginning with Amuse Bouche (2003), but Russell cannot resist playing with him at every chance, putting poor Darren into one uncomfortable position after another. 

One of the great advantages that the gay detective may have over the straight detective is his access to a wide-reaching information network, a web of relationships that cuts across social, economic, racial, and professional barriers. It is my impression that the straight detective is limited by the prejudices and narrow perspective of his own milieu from this network; when Marlowe goes slumming, it seems only too obvious that he is slumming. But the world of the homosexual, connected as it is by desire, is one of great democracy. Such diverse meeting places as bars, gyms, baths, and public parks are open to white accountants and black truck drivers, street-wise hustlers and country club elite alike. Thus, the gay detective can garner both vital clues and moral support from a much larger and diverse group of informants than is ever at the disposal of the straight detective. At some point in his cases, for example, Dick Hardesty almost always heads to a bar, where he has become good friends with the bartenders, in order to garner inside info.

* * * * *

Another significant difference. Most gay mysteries are also far more focussed on romance. It is my impression that the straight P.I. tends to be either surprisingly celebate or extremely promiscuous. In most cases he is not particularly looking to mate for life. In contrast, the gay P.I. is more often than not searching for just such a life partner. In his very first appearance, Dave Brandstetter, on the rebound from the loss of his partner, falls hard for a man who is suffering from the death of his own lover. The relationship does not work, but halfway through the series Dave finds the television journalist with whom he will live until death literally parts them.

Similarly, Don Strachey, after a failed attempt to persuade himself that he is straight, is divorced and is in the act of moving in with Timmy when the series opens. Dick Hardesty even becomes a foster father after he takes up residence with Jonathan Quinlan. This difference becomes all the more amusing when one thinks how often right-wingers throw up the image of gays as insatiable sex fiends. 

Since gay mysteries began to flourish during the advent of AIDS, some have speculated that fear drives the gay sleuth into seeking a mate. I don’t think this is the case; the very first gay mystery, The Heart in Exile, published way back in 1953 by Rodney Garland and featuring closeted London psychiatrist Tony Page as its hero, set the pattern. While trying to discover the truth about an apparent suicide, Tony slowly realizes that he is in love with his male secretary.

But certainly AIDS does enter the world of the gay mystery more than it does that of its straight counterpart. The effects of the retrovirus become evident near the beginning of Strachey’s career, changing the open relationship he has established with Timmy into a monogamous one when he has to cope with the fact that pleasure can mean death.

The same realization strikes bisexual London security advisor Duffy, created by the novelist Julian Barnes (thrice short-listed for the Booker Prize) writing under the pen name of Dan Kavanagh. It’s not difficult for a gay reader my age to identify painfully with Duffy’s compulsive examination of his body for signs of the retrovirus’s presence all through Putting the Boot In (1985). Across much of his series, Henry Rios watches his HIV-positive lover slowly succumb to the retrovirus’s viciousness.

* * * * *

But the overriding difference between the straight and the gay sleuth — whether private investigator, policeman, or amateur sleuth — is, of course, the complex act that has been labeled “coming out.”

It is a process unknown to the straight detective. The latter is born into a straight family and grows up in a world full of straight role models. But for gays, as a character in Nava’s The Hidden Law (1992) says, “we’re the only people who get born into the enemy camp... gay babies, we get born into straight families. How we survive it at all is a miracle.” As soon as the gay private investigator realizes that he is gay, he is immediately faced with his first mystery, a personal one: that of his difference. Once he has solved the mystery of Self, he then must decide what to do with the information. Particularly in the earliest gay mysteries (especially those with young amateur sleuths) there came into play a parallel between the sleuth’s solving the criminal case before him and solving the mystery of his own brand of “criminality.”

Although the vast majority of gay private eyes are out when their stories begin, some few try to remain in the closet until circumstances or enemies force them out. Such occurs for Minneapolis television journalist Todd Mills, the hero of a powerful set of novels by R. D. Zimmerman. In his opening case, the aptly named Closet (1995), Todd is framed for the murder of his secret lover and outed by his own television station. Once he is free to be totally himself, the richer his possibilities become.

A few other private eyes follow a similar path. Chicago investigative journalist Mark Manning, the hero of a series by Michael Craft, faces up to his unexplored sexuality in Flight Dreams (1997) when he meets an architect with whom he falls in love during the course of an investigation, and as a result he comes out of the closet with a rush. Thereafter and throughout the series he is torn between fidelity to the man he deeply loves and frustration that his vow of commitment does not leave him free to explore his newly discovered sexuality with others.

Among the many things that gay and straight private investigators have in common, one may observe that both often have flawed characters. No gay investigator exemplifies this more than Wilson’s Ben Justice, at least in the first five, very powerful novels of the series, perhaps the most noir of all gay mysteries. Ben falls victim to AIDS when raped by a criminal he is pursuing, and his life threatens to spiral out of control before a moment of grace is offered at the end of Blind Eye (2005).

New Orleans P.I. Chanse MacLeod, the main character in a continuing series by Greg Herren, all beginning Murder in the... (2002--), has to face up to the fact that he is indirectly responsible for the death of his lover by being “overly jealous in an incredibly self-absorbed, ugly way.” Katrina seems to offer Chanse a violent cleansing, but as of the fourth novel (I have not yet seen the fifth), Chanse’s personal growth has been erratic. As should now be obvious, many gay series turn into complex psychological portraits of the main character. Nava’s Henry Rios series is perhaps the most powerful of all for this reason: the seven mysteries in the series in essence become one seven-part novel.

The Adventures of Miles Diamond (1993-1998) by Derek Adams is a rich example of a writer being able to achieve complexity while basically trying only to entertain. A very bawdy — and a very comical — trio of novels, it charts the growth of its main character, Miles Diamond, from a terribly inept shamus, who is saved in his first case by a much better gay role model, into a detective of truly heroic proportions, “a great warrior” who is looked up to as a leader and a role model on his own for younger novices. It is definitely not a series for uptight straights: throughout his pursuits Miles works busily at “putting the ‘dick’ back in detective.” (I thought I was going to choke with laughter at one scene in which the baker’s wife pursues the quite naked Miles, covered only in flour, through the Parisian streets after she catches him flagrante delicto with her husband.) On a farcical level Miles illustrates well the process of self-actualization, the great journey of growth and transformation that all of us, not just gay sleuths, must undertake in the course of our investigation of life’s meaning.

Each time that I read Chandler’s classic essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” (1944) with the idea of gay sleuths in mind, his words take on special significance for me. They provide a challenge, a call to action, a sense of motivation that I don’t think the straight world can appreciate to the same extent. I would like to quote the passage, adding simply one word, but that one word makes all the difference, adding new resonance to Chandler’s own words — perhaps a resonance of more importance to my generation, I admit, but one that remains audible as long as we must do battle with right-wing homophobes:

... down these mean streets a gay man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. [...] He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. [...] The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

Respectfully submitted by Drewey Wayne Gunn, October 2009. Wayne is the author of The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film (Scarecrow Press, 2005). A collection of essays that he edited, The Golden Age of Gay Fiction (MLR Press, 2009), covering the period roughly 1948-1978, has just appeared. It includes his survey of gay crime fiction in general from that period as well as a pioneering essay by our pal Josh Lanyon about the works that mystery writer Joseph Hansen published under the pseudonym James Colton.

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