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literature

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Mystery Fiction: Lesbian  
 
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Novels that are consciously satiric employ a heroine who tends to undermine her own transcendence. Sarah Dreher's serial antihero Stoner is a case in point: She humorously incarnates the misfit motif pandemic to lesbian identity; she is a detective outlaw who can reassuredly exorcise the reader's internalized . Like the classical fool, she attracts the laughter of self-recognition; she is the awkward, soft-hearted butch who parodies back to ourselves our inflated desires for a heroine.

The Parodic Reinvention of Roles

Urban sexual identities during the 1980s were inflected with a self-conscious irony expressed through the parodic reinvention of roles for sexual interaction. Lesbians as a group are highly self-conscious and ironically self-deferential; along with other minority cultures, they have recognized the destabilizing potential of parody. Having a sense of humor is an essential survival tool for lesbians, necessary to deflect some of the damage dominant homophobic and misogynistic discourses inflict on us.

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Thus lesbian crime novels, by their double deflationary
gaze--at the sex-gender system and at ourselves--swing the two-headed axe liberally not just to destroy, but also to carve out and recombine new kinds of identities for us to inhabit.

For example, Barbara Wilson's Gaudi Afternoon (1990) is symptomatic of the shifting debates that see gender and sexual identities as, in the words of Judith Butler, "performative strategies of insubordination." Seeing gayness as being a "necessary drag," Butler regards the sense of play and pleasure so prevalent in the production of homosexuality as fundamentally destabilizing the seriousness and "naturalness" of heterosexuality.

Gaudi Afternoon concerns Cassandra Reilly, a translator who is hired by Frankie from San Francisco to find her gay husband in Barcelona in order that he might sign some family papers. But the novel soon degenerates into comic gender picaresque. Cassandra's task is to chase a circling chaos of individuals involved in a custody contest where each claims to be the real mother.

Frankie, the "wife," is actually a male-female ; Ben, the "husband," is a radical feminist bulldagger; April, her New Age cultural feminist "girl"friend, is an Earth Mother who dislikes children and a male-female transsexual, but Ben doesn't know it; April's "friend" is her gay closet-cross-dressing stepbrother with whom she shares "shame issues."

In this world where there is no grounding real of the physical, there is no final recourse to the body either, as in the nature-culture opposition. All is "up for grabs," and the only conclusion to draw from this parodic cacophony is the rejection of "true sexualities" in favor of the hilarious creativity of inventing new ones. The fun is in the performance--the process--not the end result.

The Influence of Postmodernist Aesthetics

The more literary of the lesbian crime novels have experimented with a kind of parodic inventiveness infused by postmodernist aesthetics. Sarah Schulman's works most clearly exhibit this confluence of interest. Every literary form evolves, and even during the short period of time in which this subgenre has developed, identifiable trends toward a more metafictional awareness can be detected.

Many of the earlier novels such as Vicki P. McConnell's Mrs. Porter's Letter (1982), The Burnton Widows (1984), and Double Daughter (1988) were little more than pulp romances, published by the highly popular Naiad Press, renowned for producing the lesbian sentimental "quickie"; but the form also soon diversified into the various permutations to be found in the mainstream and traditional detective genre.

For example, the classic Golden Age format of the country house murder exemplified by Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie structures Something Shady (1986) by Sarah Dreher, and a North American interpretation of the small town mystery is the format of Dreher's later novel A Captive in Time (1990).

A related British subgenre--one that allows for the inclusion of lesbian "teenage crushes"--is the girl's school mystery, such as Report for Murder (1987) by Val McDermid and Hallowed Murder (1989) by Ellen Hart.

The police procedural that has been popular in mainstream U.S. crime fiction since the 1960s is rewritten with a lesbian cop-hero in Amateur City (1984), Murder at the Nightwood Bar (1987), and The Beverly Malibu (1989), all by established lesbian genre author Katherine Forrest. Lessons in Murder (1988), Fatal Reunion (1989), and Death Down Under (1990) are Australian versions by Claire McNab.

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