Continuing our focus on lesbian and queer women writers over March, AWW’s contributing editor Bernadette Bean has penned a post on crime fiction featuring lesbian/queer women characters. As Bernadette mentions, it’s surprising, given the amount of crime fiction written by women or which has strong female characters, that there aren’t more portrayals of lesbian/queer characters. Their lack of representation in texts contributes to the invisibility of lesbians/queer women in general, so it’s important that we promote books that highlight their strength and diversity.
If you’d like to read and review some of the books mentioned by Bernadette, you can be in the running for a copy of Michelle Dicinoski’s memoir Ghost Wife, or Yvette Walker’s Letters to the End of Love. Michelle and Yvette have written guest posts for this month’s spotlight, and you can read their posts here and here. Simply link your review of the work by an Australian lesbian or queer women writer by the end of March, and I’ll select two names randomly.
On another note, Clan Destine Press, which was established by Lindy Cameron (mentioned by Bernadette in her post), has a special offer for AWW participants. CDP has over 40 titles in a wealth of genres, so you’ll be sure to find something you’ll like.
With so many incentives, now’s the time to go forth and read!
Lesbian/Queer Crime Fiction in Australia
Arriving on the mainstream mystery landscape shortly after pioneering, straight female heroines Sharon McCone’s Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski all burst onto the scene, Katherine V. Forrest’s former Marine and an LAPD homicide detective Kate Delafield is generally acknowledged as the first openly lesbian protagonist in modern, series-based crime fiction. The first novel in which she features is 1984’s AMATEUR CITY and it seemed to spark a flurry of activity in the sub-genre over the next decade or so, including Val McDermid’s Lindsay Gordon series in the UK.
In Australia, Claire McNab (a pseudonym for Australian-born now LA-based author Claire Carmichael) took up the mantle with 1988’s LESSONS IN MURDER which introduced high-flying New South Wales Detective Inspector Carol Ashton, called in to investigate the death-by-power-tool of a teacher who is also the son of prominent figure on the political scene. In this first novel Ashton is still very much in the closet as far as her colleagues go, but her sexuality is on display to readers as she becomes involved with Sybil, a woman who is considered the prime suspect for much of the book. The series, which currently stands at 17 instalments, is as much concerned with exploring Ashton’s sexuality and how it impacts her life and career as it is with solving its myriad crimes. The complex story arc of Ashton’s coming out was not really complete until the sixth novel of the series, 1994’s BODY GUARD.
Lindy Cameron’s trilogy of detective stories starting with 1998’s BLOOD GUILT is in many ways the opposite of McNab’s series, although its heroine is also a lesbian. However Kit O’Malley is a private detective not a policewoman, her stomping ground is Melbourne not Sydney and the stories in which she features are largely unconcerned with the small-p politics surrounding her sexuality. Having set out to create Australia’s first angst-free lesbian PI Cameron achieves this aim with aplomb, depicting a physically clumsy but witty and acerbic protagonist who manages a hectic romantic life alongside her professional investigations, which start when a body is found in the fishpond of her latest client.
Other than in these two series, lesbian characters have not been prominent in the kind of mainstream, accessible crime fiction popular in Australia though occasional characters do crop up. For example Katherine Howell’s seventh novel DESERVING DEATH, published earlier this year, features a lesbian couple, with one member fearful of coming out to her judgmental family. The pressure this puts on the couple is explored as one of several topical relationship issues that form a backdrop to the main storyline.
There are other works featuring lesbian characters which can be called crime fiction though these tend to be more stridently political and/or experimental and are not always identified as being of the genre by readers or their authors:
- Jan McKemmish’s A GAP IN THE RECORDS, published in 1985, makes a strong point about the invisibility of women in society in its deliberate attempt to subvert the traditional masculine spy novel by positing a world in which international counterintelligence is run by a group of middle-aged Australian women whose sexuality is but one of the big political themes explored. The book is subversive in form as well as content, being told by way of narrative snippets, extracts from records, postcards and maps.
- In 1991 Finola Moorhead’s STILL MURDER was similarly unusual in telling its complex, grand story of murder, rape and war crimes with a mixture of diary entries, news clippings and detective’s notebooks. Its lesbian characters are angst-ridden, but no more so than its straight ones. Check out AWW Challenge star reviewer Marilyn Brady’s far more in-depth insights on this novel which generated a comment from the elusive author herself.
- Perhaps the most subversive of all, at least in terms of its form, is Dorothy Porter’s 1995 novel THE MONKEY’S MASK which is told entirely in verse. Subtitled An Erotic Murder Mystery the book features lesbian private detective Jill Fitzpatrick who is hired first to find a missing university student but is soon looking for the girl’s killer instead. She becomes involved with the girl’s poetry professor who is drop-dead gorgeous and, of course, a suspect in the killing.
There is a lot of crime fiction published in Australia and a decent chunk of it written by women and/or featuring female characters in significant roles. It therefore seems somewhat peculiar how little of it features lesbian characters. In her 2005 work of literary criticism THE GAY DETECTIVE NOVEL Judith Markowitz wrote:
Despite the attempt to reach a crossover audience, gay/lesbian detective fiction remains ghettoized…. Furthermore, mainstream bookstores still allocate very little shelf space to gay/lesbian mysteries… The end result is continued invisibility of this body of literature which, in turn, restricts the visibility of lesbian and gay life as a whole” (p6).
Although Markowitz’s book generally refers to the American mystery publishing scene of nearly a decade ago it seems her premise could just as easily apply to the Australian scene in 2014.
I’m Bernadette Bean. I’ve been reading avidly for as long as I can remember, blogging about reading since late 2008 at Reactions to Reading and co-hosting Fair Dinkum Crime, a site devoted to promoting and discussing Australian crime fiction, since 2010.