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.
When I was a young lesbian in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, hungry for books that reflected my own life, lesbian mysteries were like manna from heaven. Characters like Kate Delafield and others were not only lesbians, they were lesbians with the skills and grit ample enough to right wrongs, change circumstances, and take the moral high ground during a time far less accepting of lesbians than the present.
That was thrilling, of course. But when the authors also wrote about the personal lives of these strong women, no amount of force could have ripped the books from my hands. Whether the protagonist was a professional crime fighter or an amateur sleuth, she had lovers and ex-lovers, circles of gay and lesbian friends, bars, break-ups, coming out traumas. She had sex. It was the lesbian part of lesbian mystery that made me grip the book tightly, yet the two were inextricably bound. I’d always loved mysteries. Put lesbians in them and it was a serious kind of love. What is amazing to me now is to remember what a magical feeling that was to read tales about women who loved other women. It would seem quaint if it weren’t so sad.
While I wasn’t aware of it at the time, those heady years of lesbian mystery became the subject of many academic studies. Who knew that the humble mystery novel could be so reflective of a whole cultural and political milieu? I recently read an article on the lesbian mysteries of that “golden” period that deconstructed the genre with language that could only be appreciated by graduate students and dissertation committees. But let’s avoid all that like the plague, shall we? Here’s what I want to get across to you. Lesbian mysteries were popular then and they are popular now, but the difference in style between the eras is striking.
The first lesbian mystery novel published in this country was M.F. Beale’s Angel Dance (1977). It was saturated with the lesbian-feminism of its time, which made it strident and a bit of a heavy go, or at least that is how I remember it. But I was thrilled by it, nonetheless. The system was the enemy our heroine must battle – the misogyny, the homophobia, the capitalism, you name it. If you were a writer of lesbian genre fiction in those days, there was an imperative to write as a social realist.
This continued into the ‘80s, with decreasing levels of polemic, when many lesbian mysteries were being published by a growing number of lesbian presses. The need to hear our voices was strong, and writers and publishers joined forces to fill the void.