Life’s Little Lesbian Mysteries is a new quarterly column about the lesbian mystery novel genre. Publishers like Bold Stroke Books and Bella Books collectively publish hundreds of lesbian mysteries each year. In this first column, we get a brief history of the genre and its popularity.
Autumn is traditionally a time when readers move away from their sand encrusted paperbacks to engrossing reads in front of the fireplace. In this edition of Life’s Little Lesbian Mysteries I’ll preview a few new works of crime fiction as well as share an interview with the wonderful Val McDermid.
Women of the Mean Streets: Lesbian Noir, edited by Jean Redmann and Greg Herren
(Bold Strokes Books)
First, the full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology, and I’m very happy that I do. It’s one of the strongest anthologies I’ve seen come out for a long time, filled with excellent stories with an emphasis on noir, that dark undertones of human interaction that so easily produce crime. I won’t single out any of the stories except my favorite, “Social Work” by Kendra Sennett, is one of the best examples of how to truly incorporate hot sex into the fabric of a story in a disturbing and utterly compelling way. There are many other really enjoyable stories. The book is solid from the first story to the last.
The Lost Women of Lost Lake by Ellen Hart (Minotaur Books)
The 19th entry in the Jane Lawless series finds Jane trying to enjoy some time off at her family’s house on Lost Lake, but what are the chances of that happening? Soon a friend in trouble requires Jane’s intervention, and few writers can lead us as skillfully through the resulting maze as Ellen Hart. The Lawless series has won multiple Lambda awards for Hart, and for good reason. Her plotting is exceptional and her characters rich enough to keep us hungry for more of Jane’s adventures.
Hostage Moon by AJ Quinn (Bold Strokes Books)
If there’s one staple of crime fiction that seems to never lose its appeal, it’s the serial killer story. The sociopath is the creepiest of bad guys — unrepentant and unrelenting. The intended victim here is Hunter Roswell, who’s aided by Sara Wilder, a former FBI profiler, in the search for her stalker. The stakes ratchet up even higher as the two women fall in love, making this one of the very popular cross-breeds of thriller and romance.
Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid (Bywater Books)
Like all of McDermid’s books, Trick of the Dark was first published in the UK. I ordered it online as soon as it came out there because that’s how big a fan I am. I can’t possibly wait for U.S. publication, which always trails by months and months.
Now Trick of the Dark is available here in the States and you should order a copy pronto. If you’re a fan of mystery writing at its best, that is. This is one of McDermid’s stand alone novels, the story of a profiler who is fighting to regain her job and finds herself unraveling a mystery at Oxford University in order to do so. Unlike McDermid’s well known series of Tony Hill/Carol Jordon mysteries, Trick of the Dark features a lesbian main character. This is probably welcomed by her lesbian readership, but incidental to the enjoyment of the book. She’s simply a master of the craft and that’s what carries you through.
The following is an interview I recently conducted with McDermid, which touches on her new book, the reaction of some Amazon.com readers to the fact that she has a (gasp) lesbian main character, and the current landscape of lesbian crime writing.
AfterEllen.com: Your new book, Trick of the Dark, has just been released in the U.S. by Bywater Books, a publisher of fiction by many fine lesbian writers. They also published your wonderful series featuring Lindsay Gordon, one of my favorite lesbian mystery series of all time. How does Trick of the Dark fit in here?
Val McDermid: Throughout my career, I’ve written different styles of mystery, mostly because it’s important to me to stay excited about my work. That means always writing the book that’s shouting loudest to be heard at any given time, which isn’t always what works best for publishers! As well as writing series, I’ve written standalone novels, and Trick of the Dark is one of those. Having said that, I’ve had such a positive response to the protagonist, Charlie Flint, that I might just have to bring her back if I can find the right story for her. I won’t deny it was fun returning to a lesbian protagonist!
AE: As a reader of all of your books, I know that you’ve always included gay and lesbian characters in your stories, though the protagonists are straight. Do you have a reaction to the howl of protest from a few Amazon reviewers that Trick of the Dark features lesbian main characters? A couple have accused you of pushing a lesbian agenda. When I stopped laughing, I wondered at the potential impact of that.
VM: I don’t come to my books with an agenda, and as far as I can gather from what readers say to me, neither do the overwhelming majority of them, whether they’re gay or straight. The world I write is a reflection of the world I live in and so it features GLBT characters in the myriad roles they occupy in the real world. Sadly, that world also contains ignorant bigots.
Frankly, I don’t know what they’re doing reading my books at all because their hostility to anyone who doesn’t reflect them back at themselves would suggest to me they’re not going to find many characters in my books who chime with their view of the world. I suspect many of those who post this sort of negativity haven’t actually read this book or any others that I’ve written. I believe there is a concerted campaign to drag down the amazon ratings of writers who represent a wider view of the world than the religious right would like to see out there; what we need to do is to counteract it. I’m not asking people to blindly support writers just because they’re gay. But I think we do need to be more proactive about the books we enjoy and take the time and trouble to register our positive preferences.
AE: You gave a lovely acceptance speech at this year’s Lammy Awards in which you gave credit to those writers of lesbian mystery who came before you. How do you see the genre today?
VM: When I started out, feminist crime fiction was the new kid on the block, shaking up the genre and making writers look over their shoulders to see what the hell was coming at them. Right in the vanguard of that movement was a handful of lesbian crime writers — Katherine V Forrest, Barbara Wilson, Mary Wings, Sandra Scoppettone, Ellen Hart — who were shaking the mystery novel by the scruff of the neck and putting lesbians front and centre in this new wave. Well, the revolution changed the landscape and like all revolutions, it grew somewhat domesticated. And that’s what I see now.
The lesbian mystery has settled down and got itself a dog and a pair of slippers. That’s not a bad thing. We deserve not to have to go to the barricades every time we want a good read. But I must admit I do pine a little for those feisty, in-your-face novels. I’m still trying to write them, though the politics these days are as much social as sexual. And I keep looking out for a new lesbian crime writer to emerge who will throw things up in the air again.
AE: What’s up next for you?
VM: My next U.S. publication is The Retribution, out in January from Atlantic Monthly Press. It’s the seventh novel to feature the partnership of psychological profiler Tony Hill and police officer Carol Jordan. What I’m writing, though, is next year’s book, a standalone thriller called The Vanishing Point. I’ve also recently revived my radio drama career and I’m thinking about another radio serial following on from the success of one that aired on the BBC this summer. And I have a kids’ book out in January in the UK — My Granny is a Pirate.
Anne Laughlin is the author of “Sometimes Quickly” and “Veritas,” as well as many short stories published in a number of lesbian anthologies. “Veritas” won a 2010 Goldie award for Best Mystery. Anne is past fellow of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging Writer Program. She lives in Chicago.