The more a genre evolves, especially as society evolves, the stronger and more vibrant it is. That’s as true of crime fiction as it is of any other genre. When different kinds of authors create a wide variety of characters and plot innovations, the genre grows. So I’ve been very pleased to see the increasing diversity of crime-fictional characters, whether or not they’re the main sleuth(s), which we now see in crime fiction. For example, if we look at the way gay and lesbian characters have been portrayed in crime fiction and how that portrayal has evolved, we can see how the genre has changed and grown.
The integration of gay sleuths and other characters wasn’t really a part of earlier crime fiction. In Agatha Christie’s 1952 release Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, we get just a glimpse of the prevailing views about gay fictional characters. In that novel, Christie’s fictional detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is visiting the village of Broadhinny to collaborate with playwright Robin Upward on an adaptation of one of her novels for the stage. Here’s one of the many tense conversations they have about the project and about Oliver’s sleuth Sven Hjerson:
‘Ariadne, darling, I did explain all that. It’s not a book, darling, it’s a play… And if we get this tension, this antagonism between Sven Hjerson and this– what’s-her-name?- Karen – you know, all against each other and yet really frightfully attracted – ’
‘Sven Hjerson never cared for women,’ said Mrs. Oliver coldly.
‘But you can’t have him a pansy, darling. Not for this sort of play. I mean, it’s not green bay trees or anything like that. It’s thrills and murders and clean open-air fun.’
The mention of open air had its effect.
‘I’m going out,’ said Mrs. Oliver abruptly. ‘I need air. I need air badly.’”
Oliver gets distracted from her worries about the play by a real-life murder investigation. Superintendent Spence has asked Hercule Poirot to find out the truth behind the killing of a local charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger. Poirot travels to the village and Oliver works with him to find out who the real killer is.
Portrayals of gay crime-fictional characters changed dramatically with Victor Banis’ 1966 release of The Man from C.A.M.P.. This series of stories features special agent Jackie Holmes, the first openly gay secret agent and arguably the first positive depiction of a gay protagonist. For example, in the first story, Holmes is paired with an agent from the U.S. Department of the Treasure to track down a gang of Los Angeles counterfeiters. The stories were originally written as send-ups of the James Bond stories and became very popular. They’re well-written (in my opinion) and their success paved the way for the integration of gay and lesbian sleuths and other characters into other crime fiction.
In the last few decades there’ve been a number of gay and lesbian crime-fictional characters and what’s important is that the fact that they’re gay is not the most important thing about them. For instance, Mark Richard Zubro’s Tom Mason is a Chicago high-school English teacher whose partner is baseball star Scott Carpenter. In Why Isn’t Becky Twitchell Dead, Mason and Carpenter investigate the murder of Susan Warren, a student at Mason’s school. Warren’s boyfriend Jeff Trask, who’s in one of Mason’s classes, is accused of the murder in part because Trask and Warren had a loud quarrel one night just after a party. But Trask claims that he’s innocent, so Mason and Carpenter start asking questions. It turns out that Warren’s death had everything to do with a drugs ring operating at the school. In this series and in Zubro’s other series featuring Chicago cop Paul Turner, the fact that the main characters are gay is treated quite matter-of-factly and without self-consciousness. To put it another way, these characters are sleuths who happen to be gay.
The same is true of Val McDermid’s freelance journalist sleuth Lindsay Gordon. In Report For Murder for instance, Gordon agrees to do a piece on the fundraising activities at Derbyshire House Girls’ School. The school’s in dire need of support to keep its doors open and Gordon needs the money the assignment will bring. Besides, her friend Paddy Callaghan, who invited her in the first place, is a teacher there. So she travels to the school for its fundraising weekend which is to culminate in a Gala Concert. Everything goes wrong though when famous cellist Lorna Smith-Couper, who’s returned to the school for the benefit event, is murdered. Television personality and author Cordelia Brown is also at the school at Callaghan’s invitation and together Gordon and Brown deal with the unwelcome media attention that the murder brings so the school can stay open. When it becomes clear that finding the murderer is the only way to prevent panic, the two investigate. They also end up becoming romantic partners and their relationship lasts through several novels in the series.
There’s also Stella Duffy’s South London lesbian sleuth Sarah “Saz” Martin whom we first meet in Calendar Girl. In that novel, Martin decides to take advantage of the Enterprise Allowance, which provides start-up funds for new businesses. Hers will be private detection. She’s soon hired by John Clark to find a mysterious missing woman he knows only as September. Clark tells Martin that he’s been meeting September once a week for dinner for the past few years but she hasn’t been in contact now for six weeks and he’s worried. Martin needs the PI fee so she takes the case. In the meantime, we also meet Maggie Simpson, a stand-up comic who’s met a woman she calls the Woman with the Kelly McGillis Body. Maggie’s very much in love with this woman, who seems unable to get involved in a permanent relationship even though the two women move in together. Saz follows September’s trail to New York, where she finds out that September may have been involved in the drugs and prostitution business. Then there’s a murder. Now Maggie’s story merges with Saz’ as the two women try to solve their respective mysteries.
Anthony Bidulka has also created a gay sleuth, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant. Quant has made several friends in Saskatoon’s gay community. For instance, there’s his mentor, successful clothier Anthony Gatt, who seems to know everyone who is anyone. And there are Mary Quail and Marushka Yabadochka, partners who own and run Colourful Mary’s, a popular local restaurant. In this series, the fact that Quant’s gay is only part of his character and therefore of the novels featuring him. The stories are murder mysteries and that’s where Bidulka keeps the focus. In other words, Quant isn’t a self-consciously-gay PI. Rather, he’s a private investigator who is gay. There’s a big difference and that difference adds to these novels.
There are plenty of other crime fiction novels too that integrate gay and lesbian characters as “supporting cast members.” For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s sleuth Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a Roman-style building called Insula. One of Chapman’s friends is Janet Warren whom Chapman met while she was in the accountancy business. In Heavenly Pleasures, Chapman has dinner with Warren and learns that Warren and her partner Mel are planning to move to Singapore. Along with catching up with an old friend, Chapman also wants some input from Warren about a top accountant leaving a large Melbourne firm and all sorts of rumours about shady dealing. It may be related to some frightening events that have been taking place at Insula so Chapman learns what she can from her friend. And that information proves useful as Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen track down the truth behind the scary things that have been happening. There are other gay characters in this series too. For instance, in Earthly Delights we meet two of Chapman’s neighbours Kepler Li and his partner Jon, who met during one of Jon’s trips abroad. Greenwood focuses more on the personalities of these characters than she does on the fact that they’re homosexual.
In Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace, we meet Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She’s trying to get through life after the death of her beloved husband Stefan and although she’s managing, she’s not doing what you’d call very well. Then one day she gets a letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. Other frightening events happen too, culminating with the discovery of the body of Sara Matteus, one of Bergman’s clients, near Bergman’s own home. Bergman and her friend Aina Davidson seek some guidance from another friend Vijay Kumar, with whom Bergman went to graduate school. Kumar is a psychological profiler who gives Bergman valuable help in figuring out who might be stalking her. Kumar is also gay. What’s interesting about this character is that, like the characters in Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, the fact that he’s gay is treated quite matter-of-factly.
And to me it’s a major step forward in crime fiction when a character is developed as a whole person regardless of that character’s personal life. It’s part of the reason crime fiction has evolved and grown as it has.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bronski Beat’s No Difference. There you go, Sarah!