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literature

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Mystery Fiction: Lesbian  
 
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A British attempt to disrupt racial and gender stereotypes can be found in Claire Macquet's Looking for Ammu (1992). The cover-blurb promises "A film noir world where distinctions between saints and sinners become devastatingly uncertain," thus invoking the urban dystopian tradition of the hard-boiled crime novel in which perception itself, intrinsic to investigation, is at best unstable, at worst morally flawed.

Looking for Ammu breaks with feminist crime convention by rejecting the model of a supersleuth. White nursing tutor Harriet Weston, a prissy, conceited, repressed, self-righteous narrator, pursues her mythologized mentor, Black Dr. Ammu Bai. As Harriet tries to find the missing Ammu, the investigative trajectory incisively deconstructs the sign of Black-Woman-As-Mystical-Enigma, signaling how sexualized and racist this dominant narrative construction is.

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Thus, a formally noble act of discovery is revealed--through some viciously satiric writing--as self-interest. That the narrator is in love with her idol is plain from the first chapter. Evoking the classic way White Westerners have fantasized the Black Other, the text lays bare the eroticism in this White gaze. The text manipulates the generic certainties of both detective and romance fiction to leave the reader questioning the representation of desire.

Problematizing the Heroic

Lesbian mystery fiction has consistently problematized the use of the heroic in the crime novel. A swathe of novels predominant in the mid-1980s self-consciously appropriated the image of the avenging knight, proferring a sexy superdyke striding the city streets in her steel-capped Doc Martins, swinging her double-headed axe, dispensing slain patriarchs in her wake. This was one form of transgressing the genre.

Later manifestations made more explicit the legacy of butch-femme roles in this image. These literary figures made more acceptable pre-Women's Liberation lesbian sexual identities, which were becoming reintegrated and reformed for the new sexual cultures of the 1980s and 1990s.

However, is the fact that so many dyke detectives appeared as butch fantasies due to the regrettably intransigent masculine conventions of the genre? Or is the effect on the representation of the heroic rather more destabilizing, more parodic? The figure of the detective is crucially a fantasy of agency, which is culturally conflated with masculinity in both the dominant culture and within feminism itself. Could a femme detective focus our desires so effectively?

As a subcultural stereotype, the butch detective works at two levels of identification for the reader. Not only does the reader desire the butch, she also wants to be the butch. In her outlaw status, the butch detective promises a romantic, forbidden fantasy and the incarnation of a felt alienation that is fictionally empowered. The convention of the detective hero is appropriated and destabilized by the parodic acknowledgment that the complex sign "butch" can encapsulate a field of contradictions, primarily dependent on readerly projections.

Detective Fiction as Satire

In genre theory, detective fiction has been most likened to satire. Menippean satire, in its simplest form, consists of a dialogue between stylized characters who merely mouth ideas. The two speakers are an eiron, the hero, and an alazon, someone usually revealed to be a deluded and pompous fool. The alazon's self-delusion is continually confirmed in inverse relation to the eiron's discernment.

The lesbian crime fiction detective's dramatic function is to expose alazons using her ratiocinative powers, thus leading the reader into a changed and enlightened consciousness. The feminist ideological project presents patriarchy and heterosexism as synonymous with alazony, thus "false consciousness" is revealed by an investigation into gender relations.

It is a persuasive structure that artfully seduces the proto-feminist reader. The protagonist or eiron is able to scrutinize the hysterical excesses of masculinity with a deflationary gaze. Masculinity, in these narratives, usually ends up shooting itself in the foot.

Interweaving Suspense with Pleasure

The novels that achieve the most convincing critique of patriarchy, heterosexism, and masculinity have not done it through "political correctness" or even through the simple moral dualism that lesbian equals good and patriarch equals bad. The most effective lesbian crime novels have been those that have most enthusiastically embraced the need to entertain the reader, to interweave suspense with pleasure.

Those, such as She Came Too Late (1986) and She Came in a Flash (1988) by Mary Wings, which reproduce most faithfully the classic element of satire succeed most as popular novels. The defining glance of the detective is to reveal the real and sordid nature of the world, but this revelation is achieved obliquely, through the sideways glance of satire.

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