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Mystery Fiction: Gay Male  
 
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In the decades since Stonewall, gay male mystery fiction has burgeoned in the United States, both in quantity and in quality, and has increasingly been issued by mainstream presses.

Between the 1930s and the 1960s, gay males occasionally appeared in British and American mystery fiction, but they were largely relegated to minor roles as either villains or victims, and their lives were invariably pictured as bleak and unfulfilled. Typical early examples of villainous gays are the effeminate hood in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930) and the transvestite Nazi spy in Ross Macdonald's The Dark Tunnel (1944, published under the name Kenneth Millar).

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But beginning in 1952, with Death in the Fifth Position by Gore Vidal writing as Edgar Box, the American mystery novel has progressively opened itself to the portrayal of gay males as admirable characters, even to the point of accepting them as detectives. Significantly, this change had its impetus primarily within that most macho of subgenres, the hard-boiled detective novel. Unlike lesbian mystery novels, which are much more numerous but which have largely been published by small, specialized presses, the gay male mystery novel has been welcomed by such mainstream publishers as Avon, St. Martin's, Holt, and Putnam.

The Post-Stonewall Mystery Novel and Its Precursors

Although some gay mystery fiction seems to have been written primarily to exploit the more flamboyant elements of gay male life and to provide a kind of freak-show tour of the gay subculture, the main impetus of post-Stonewall gay mystery novels has been the normalization of gay life. In these works, gay individuals and the gay subculture tend to be demystified and robbed of their sensationalism.

Shortly after Stonewall, the mystery novel featuring major gay characters found a strong and sure voice in Joseph Hansen, and it swelled to a significant corpus in the 1980s and 1990s. Although a few political conservatives among mainstream straight mystery writers still portray gays as degenerates, many more now include admirable and likable gay men as minor characters.

Important in opening the mainstream mystery novel to gay characters and themes is the influential and long-running Tom Ripley series by an acknowledged master of suspense novels, Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley's Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water (1992). Ripley is a charming and cultured bisexual who, in the course of the five novels, commits several murders and other serious criminal offenses.

But Highsmith manages to make Ripley such an appealing character that the reader is manipulated, however unwillingly, into siding with him against the forces of retribution and into hoping for his success in eluding capture and prosecution. Ironically, it is only because Tom is a criminal that the first Ripley novel could be published by a mainstream press in the homophobic 1950s, yet the sympathy he evokes in the reader is ultimately gay-positive. Given Highsmith's extraordinary insight into the complexity and ambiguity of moral issues, it is not surprising that gay male readers have helped make the Ripley novels cult classics.

Exploitation and Homophobia: George Baxt and the First Gay Detective

The first appearance of a gay detective in a mystery novel published by a mainstream press occurred in 1966, when George Baxt, then at the beginning of what was to become a prolific career in the crime novel, published A Queer Kind of Death, inaugurating a trilogy that was completed with Swing Low, Sweet Harriet (1967) and Topsy and Evil (1968).

During the course of investigating the death of a hustler, the flashy African-American New York homicide detective Pharoah Love becomes intrigued by one of the chief suspects, the bisexual writer Seth Piro, and decides that since he has not been especially gratified in heterosexual affairs of the heart, he will try a homosexual union. Realizing that Seth is the murderer, he pressures the writer into an affair by less than subtle threats of exposure and then falsifies evidence to protect him.

In the second book of the series, centering on aging movie queens, Seth finally balks at the arrangement and is killed by Love in the same way that he himself had killed the hustler. In the third and last installment, Love has left the police department under a cloud of suspicion and has undergone a sex-change operation, reappearing on the scene as Ocelot, an exotic cabaret entertainer who is doomed to die in the closing chapter.

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