Life’s Little Lesbian Mysteries: The good ol’ days

The early ‘80s saw the publication of Amateur City, which introduced author Katherine Forrest’s series heroine, Kate Delafield, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police. This groundbreaking mystery series in many ways perfectly captured the time, when lesbian-feminism was giving way as a theme to the fight out of the closet and into social visibility and acceptance, a fight that was a long way from being won. Kate Delafield, in fact, remains rather famously closeted throughout the series, an accurate depiction of a real lesbian working in a homophobic organization, rather than the lone hero in mainstream crime fiction who never remains constrained.

And this indeed is one of the things that has characterized the lesbian mystery; its protagonists are relatable to the lesbians reading them. Katherine Forrest recently told me that what she feels set the lesbian series sleuth of the time apart from her mainstream counterpart was that “our detective characters were dynamic, they tended to change and grow over the course of the series, as opposed to most mysteries where the main character doesn’t change all that much from book to book.” Kate was destined to grow as an individual much more quickly than the system she worked in would grow in its liberality. Living in the closet becomes more unbearable for Kate as time passes, just as it did for all of us reading the series.

Another series author writing in the ‘80s (and today), Claire McNab, explains it like this: “In the ‘80s, most lesbian literature was directed towards an audience that was largely in the closet, hence many of the novels dealt with the perils and rewards of coming out. The heterosexual world then seemed largely ignorant about gays in general, and what straight people believed about us was often clichéd or derogatory. Going back and reading some of that literature now, illustrates a world view that, judged by present day social mores, represents the dark ages.”

I remember reading the books and feeling the sense of relief that comes with shared hardship. I felt less alone when I read fiction about characters oppressed by the same things I was. But unlike my friends and I, the lesbians in these mystery novels often kicked ass in a way we could only dream of, striking a blow for what we had only the smallest hope of – transparency and acceptance.

And did I mention that they also had sex? They did, and it was luscious and my favorite part of every book. It was restrained, but it was powerful. I will make the not so daring leap as to say that the way sex and lesbian relationships are depicted may be the biggest difference between the mysteries of the ‘80s – ‘90s and the mysteries being published today.

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