The Gay and Lesbian Detective

Volume 9, No. 4, Winter 1993-94


  • Changing Times with Other Voices by Roberta Ann Henrich
  • The Gay Detective or The Mysterious Gay by Carolyn Kacena
  • Thanks, Dave by Elizabeth Watson
  • Out of the Twilight (and Into the Mainstream) by Carolyn Wheat
  • The Homosexual Detective in British Literature by Philip L. Scowcroft
  • Ellen Hart’s Jane Lawless: Restauranteur and Sleuth by Barbara Richards Haugen
  • A Trailblazer and His Legacy by Dean James
  • Butch Pilot by Rebecca Beguin
  • Stoner McTavish by Sarah Dreher
  • The Other Side of Silence by Joan M. Drury
  • Short Essay by Ellen Hart
  • From Anonymity to Autonomy by Katherine E. Kreuter
  • “Oh Golly,” She Cried by Mabel Maney
  • We All Want to Change the World by Jan McKemmish
  • Full of Sound and Fury by Elizabeth Pincus
  • An Act of Revolution by Pele Plante
  • “Tell Me What You Know” by Jane Severance
  • A Lesbian Writer Answers Questions by Dorothy Tell
  • Dancing with the Expectations of the Genre by Barbara Wilson
  • We Were All Lesbians in Those Days by Kieran York
  • A Canadian Speaks by Eve Zaremba
  • Out of the Closet and Into the Plot by Mark Richard Zubro


  • Reviews by Dean James, Carol Harper, Geraldine Galentree and Noemi Levine
  • In Short: Homosexuality and the Mystery by Marvin Lachman
  • A Mystery Reader Abroad by Carol Harper
  • The Reference Shelf by Ellen Nehr
  • Guiding Mystery Readers by Marvin Lachman
  • MRI Mayhem
  • From the Associate Editor by Carol Harper
  • Letters to the Editor

Dancing with the Expectations of the Genre
by Barbara Wilson (Seattle, WA)

Subversion is natural to a lesbian writer. Already perceived as subversive readers (spotting the lesbians, transforming male lovers into female), when we set pen to paper we find it temptingly easy to play with convention. And what convention could be more alluringly overturnable than that of the crime novel, once the bastion of forces of social order and patriarchal law and now a riotous free-for-all field of literature that still, strangely, has rules and expectations.

When the reader picks up a science fiction novel, she expects to be transported in time and place to another, perhaps extraterrestrial or alien, culture where she will come across odd landscapes and unusual technology, invented words and imaginative social behaviors. When the reader picks up a crime novel, she expects, if not a murder or two, then at least an unexplained disappearance, a kidnapping, a theft or a heist. She expects a wide variety of characters with hidden pasts and dangerous motives; she expects even the most pleasant person in such a novel to be capable of murder or at least cheating, stealing and dissembling. The reader also expects decent characters who are falsely accused and characters with small faults that loom large. The reader expects a central character who has some notion of justice, some curiosity and some guts. An investigator who never takes no for an answer, who asks questions and demands or puzzles out answers. She who is philosopher, detective, prosecutor and judge. She who is neither victim nor bystander; she who rejects the role of passive observer in favor of speech or action.

Although crime novels seem realistic, they are not. They are shadow plays, and what is being dramatized is not so much good and evil, but truth and lies. It is in the juxtaposition of social realism and stylization, in the elision between expectation and invention, that the subversively-inclined crime writer may find her subject and style.

Let me count some of the subversions I’ve tried to perform on convention: murder among a small closed circle of acquaintances, a circle that happens to be a collective (Murder in the Collective); the search for a teenage hooker—a staple of male detective novels (Sisters of the Road); the murder of a prominent person with a hidden, unsavory past that only gradually comes to light (The Dog Collar Murders). In these novels, the question and answer method of investigation is used extensively, not only to elicit alibis and confessions, but to create a dialectical voice. However, in each novel, I also work with such issues as racism, prostitution and pornography to create a dialectic on subjects that are often part of the unexamined, but titillating, backdrop to murder mysteries.

All three of these Pam Nilson novels follow certain conventions of their own, and in this they are quite in tune with other overtly feminist crime novels of the ’80s. The crimes focus on injustice towards women and explore family secrets and institutionalized aggression. They also call into question some of the hypocrisy and rhetoric of the feminist movement. The novels show an independent but not autonomous female investigator in the process of forming and acting on feminist values. As a lesbian, Pam is not immune from injustice and stigma, nor invulnerable to violence against women. Indeed, the incident at the end of Sisters of the Road did not shock because it is uncommon, but because it goes against what we expect in crime novels. Investigators may be threatened, drugged, beat up, tortured and left for dead, but their sexual boundaries are never disturbed.

With my fourth crime novel, I decided to try subversion from a different angle. The pressure I’d felt in the 80’s to write as a social realist was lifting and I wanted to experience my playful, even frivolous, spirit again—to laugh more and sermonize less. I found my new narrator in Cassandra Reilly, a translator of Spanish and South American literature, a woman who travels frequently and lives nowhere. Gaudi Afternoon is a farce, a mystery without a murder, a caper in which the precious item stolen back and forth is animal, not mineral. The plot plays with the notion of disguises and false identities so dear to the hearts of crime writers. Set in Barcelona, the novel introduces an investigator who is also a working translator. As a translator myself, I see Cassandra Reilly’s profession as a device that gives her a plausible reason to travel as well as allowing her to engage in all the word games and misunderstandings that the juxtaposition of languages can create.

Trouble in Transylvania, the second in the Cassandra Reilly series, takes up some of the themes of the first novel—motherhood, lesbian desire and the question of home—and does so in a more mythologized fashion. At heart it is a serious book that circles around my preoccupations with tolerance of difference, and with loss and death. The delight to me is being able to talk about these essential themes in a circus atmosphere.

The stylized form of the mystery has always lent itself to parody, pastiche and satire—witness Mary Wings’ deliciously over-the-top Raymond Chandler act in She Came Too Late. Satire has always appealed to me as well, but it is in wordplay and slapstick, in intellectual and physical action, combined with the structure of naming a crime and investigating it, that I’ve found some of my happiest writing moments, dancing with the expectations of the genre.