The Lesbian Private Eye

Essay by Megan Casey

Megan Casey, who maintains The Goodreads Lesbian Mysteries Site and her own Art of the Lesbian Mystery web site, takes a peek at the history of the Sapphic Sleuth.

The lesbian mystery sub-genre is a relative newcomer to the literary world. Angel Dance, a 1977 novel by M.F. Beal, a friend of Thomas Pynchon, is considered the first. Since then, over 250 authors have created more than 1000 mysteries with lesbian protagonists -- and all but about half a dozen of these authors are still alive. Of course, not all lesbian sleuths are P.I.s, but a great number are. And some of them are very good ones.

Josh Lanyon, in his article about male gay P.I.s in fiction elsewhere on this site ("A Queer Eye for the New Eyes"), asserts that most of those books are written by women. This gender reversal is not present in lesbian mysteries, where almost none of the books are written by men. Another interesting comparison is that 20-30 percent more gay mysteries appear on Amazon's Top 100 LGBT Mystery list than lesbian mysteries -- most of which are written by actual lesbians. This seems to indicate that more straight women who write queer fiction are writing about gay men than about lesbians.

Certainly the subject matter -- except maybe for homophobia -- is different for the two sub-branches of the mystery genre as well. For instance, AIDS rarely comes up in lesbian mysteries, and almost never does it play an important part in the plot (Cop Out by Claire McNab and Crazy for Loving by Jaye Maiman are exceptions). Subjects that arise over and over again in lesbian mysteries are spousal abuse, rape, the sex industry, sex itself, the empowerment of women, relationships, and lesbians, lesbians, lesbians -- all of them beautiful. Their drink of choice is scotch, preferably the expensive kind. And they often have a cat at home. Does this mean that only lesbians will enjoy these books? Absolutely not. The stories can be as delightful, engrossing, and enjoyable as any other type of mystery, but offer the added attraction of describing a lifestyle that few people outside it are even aware of. However, readers who are not interested in strong women need not apply.

The first novel featuring a lesbian P.I. was A Reason to Kill, written by Polish/Canadian writer Eve Zaremba. Her protagonist, Helen Keremos, was featured in six exciting and -- sometimes sexy -- novels published between 1978 and 1997. Helen may be middle-aged and look like the Wicked Witch of the West, but she is fearless, intelligent, and randy.

In 1986, Mary Wings' butch heroine, Emma Victor, moved from Boston to San Francisco to ply her private eye talents. A year later, Lauren Wright Douglas's Caitlin Reece opened an office in Victoria, British Columbia to solve her complicated and engrossing mysteries.

The women's rights movement and the creation of the iconic independent women's press, Naiad, had set the stage for these early authors. Books about strong lesbian police detectives by authors like Katherine V. Forrest and Claire McNab, ensured the popularity of these new lesbian P.I.s. And in the early 1990s, Naiad and other women's independent presses began publishing private eye novels in earnest.

Dorothy Tell wrote about Poppy Dillworth, 65-year-old retiree from the Dallas Police Department who decides to become a P.I. instead of commit suicide. Go figure.

Pat Welch's fierce P.I. Helen Black appears in San Francisco in 1990 and proceeds to alter the literature. Through 10 novels, Helen goes through a series of changes that causes her to question everything she had ever believed in. She not only changes cities, but changes lovers, her outlook on life, and even her profession when a stint in prison causes her to lose her P.I. license. Heady stuff.

Other indie presses soon followed suit. New Victoria Press published the first novel in the still-popular Micky Knight series, by J.M. Redmann. Micky is a New Orleans P.I., with all the local color you could want. Micky, like most lesbian eyes, is more butch than fem, although lesbian cops or amateur sleuths in other professions are as likely to be fem.

Big hitter Sandra Scoppettone's Lauren Laurano, a gumshoe based in New York City, became the first lesbian P.I. to appear in a novel published by a mainstream press and reviewed by The New York Times. Her intelligent and well-edited stories have inspired and influenced many younger writers. Other P.I.s first seen in the early 1990s include Jaye Maiman's still-popular and intensely introspective Robin Miller, Randye Lordon's Sydney Sloane, Elizabeth Pincus's Nell Fury and, in a lighter vein, Mabel Maney's Nancy Clue & Cherry Aimless, thinly disguised gay recreations of Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames.

The late 1990s introduced such authors as Cassidy James, Meg Darcy, and Lindy Cameron, but probably the most important writer in these years was Nicola Griffith, whose science fiction books had already been canonized by feminists. Her relentless and almost Schwarzenegger-like Aud Torvingen made her debut in 1998, followed by two more novels in the next decade. If you like 'em tough, Aud kicks virtually everybody's ass. The fact that these books were -- and are -- published by a mainstream press ensures them a wide readership and a bridge to other worthy lesbian mystery authors.

The 2000s began the electronic era, which means that there are many more lesbian P.I.s available then ever before. It also means that a reader must be able to pick and choose the best of what is available due to the oftentimes lack of proper editing, formatting, or even copyediting. There is a lot to choose from -- way more than space here allows. But let's start with Claire McNab. Although she was the author of one of the best-ever series about lesbian cops, it wasn't until 2004 that she wrote her first private eye novel. Kylie Kendall, coming off a bad relationship in her native Australia, learns that her American dad left her his half of an investigative service in Los Angeles. Kylie is bright and funny; her Aussie dialect and expressions will tickle American audiences.

Other P.I.s who made their debuts in the 2000s are Kelli Jae Baeli, whose P.I. Jobeth O'Brien works out of Colorado. Her AKA series is popular not only for the adventures and the characters, but for the sex. This series, which is now available in a boxed set, is almost constantly represented on the Amazon Top 100 LGBT list.

Other mentionable P.I.s are Liz Bradbury's likeable Maggie Gale, out of New York City, and Liz Bugg's Calli Barnow from Toronto. One of the most unusual, though, and probably the coolest P.I. in literature, is Peta Fox's Jen Madden from Sydney, Australia. She is a part-time P.I. who specializes in sex crimes. Call these hard-boiled/noir/bondage. If you like subtle humor, great characters, and wonderful writing, check out Fox; if you are squeamish about hard sex, don't.

And then there are some mystery-solvers that aren't quite in the P.I. business but still feature in outstanding books. Iza Moreau's Small Town series features investigative reporter Sue-Ann McKeown, who is often called on to solve some of the very weird goings on that seem to permeate her small town of Pine Oak Florida -- a city where you don't ask and you don't tell -- especially if you happen to be in love with another woman. And Londoner Elizabeth Woodcraft writes about a barrister who has to solve crimes dealing with the cases she is assigned. Well-written, exciting, and more than a bit noir.

Thirty-seven or so years is not long enough for history to have made considered value judgments on these works or their authors. It is our job as intelligent readers to place these books into some kind of a historical context and to voice an opinion on which are important, which to take to the beach and leave there, and which to not bother with at all.

* * * * *

Megan Casey was born in Canada but moved to the Pacific Northwest as a child. She received her MA in Library and Information Management from the Portland, Oregon campus of Emporia State University. In Portland she was exposed for the first time to lesbian literature, but it was more than a decade later before she decided to make the lesbian mystery novel her intellectual specialty. She currently works in a public library in a small town outside Billings, Montana, and maintains The Goodreads Lesbian Mysteries Site and her own The Art of the Lesbian Mystery Novel.


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