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Mystery Fiction: Lesbian  
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The Urban Dystopia

The urban dystopia allows the exploration of gender and sexuality in the city and particularly stresses themes of the urban oppression of women; examples are Death Strip (1986) by Benita Kirkland, Sisters of the Road (1986) by Barbara Wilson, and Jumping the Cracks (1987) by Rebecca O'Rourke.

The hard-boiled private eye is the essence of the American form; a masculinized hero alienated from the urban jungle is turned into a lesbian in She Came Too Late (1986) and She Came in a Flash (1988) by Mary Wings and A Reason to Kill (1978), Work for a Million (1986), and Beyond Hope (1987) by the Canadian writer Eve Zaremba.

The supernatural chiller, such as The Crystal Curtain (1988) by Sandy Bayer, improvises themes of spirituality from cultural feminism--indeed almost all of Camarin Grae's novels contain these mysterious elements.

The Amateur Investigator

Crime fiction has a long tradition of female investigators, but the lesbian mystery novels that proffer an amateur investigator are unimaginable without the kinds of interventions into the workplace that feminism made in the 1970s. Cass and the Stone Butch (1987) and Skiptrace (1988) by Antoinette Azolakov and In the Game (1991) by Nikki Baker all offer ironic versions of the lone woman supersleuth.

In the British novels Report for Murder (1987), Common Murder (1989), and Final Edition (1991), she is dressed as the journalist-investigator.

The Political Thriller

Finally, lesbian mystery fiction has also appropriated the political thriller in Blood Sisters (1981) by Valerie Miner and The Providence File (1991) by Amanda Kyle Williams. Both works deal with terrorism, but from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Lesbian mystery fiction has exploited a variety of formula fictions, and a diversity of ideological belief is represented in them.


Many of these books are enjoyable as pulp fictions. They exploded into the new markets created by gay consumerism during the 1980s. Gay and lesbian publishing enterprises have flourished in the post-Stonewall era in "out and proud" purchasing communities.

In creating our own popular culture, we have inevitably drawn on the mainstream models offered to us, and the resultant combinations vary in form and content. The crime novel, with its legacy of socialist critique (Dashiell Hammett, for example, was a communist), its formal relationship to parody, and its tendency to produce antiheroic narratives, contains elements favorable to countercultural appropriation.

But the lesbian crime novel had its heyday under the individualistic era of Reaganism and Thatcherism. It often posed answers to crime and social problems in the form of personal rather than structural acts of justice. Its modus operandi, in a decade when television was inundating us with programs that fictionalized the upholding of--rather than the resistance to--hegemonic versions of the law, must cause us to consider what readerly needs were being satisfied.

Popular narratives are never wholly reactionary nor wholly radical because despite their offering us dominant reading positions to occupy, readers will always find a way to read "other-wise," to put their own particular needs and interpretations into the text. This is how we can read Hitchcock's film Rebecca (1940) as a lesbian thriller.

With the lesbian crime novel, we can speculate why it proliferated during a decade of individualistic identity politics, in the aftermath of the liberation movements of the 1970s. We can observe that lesbian feminist science fiction--the literature of utopian vision, of hope and social possibilities--was the favorite form of the 1970s but became passé by the 1980s.

Crime fiction allows us to express anxieties about a period of conformity, conventionalism, and crackdown, but did it give us any impetus for new formulations of the law?

Sally R. Munt

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literature >> Overview:  Amazons

Historically either distrusted as agents of chaos or admired as examples of female power and intelligence, Amazons were depicted as heterosexual until the twentieth century, when lesbians adopted them as symbols of powerful women living without men.

literature >> Overview:  Mystery Fiction: Gay Male

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

literature >> Overview:  Post-modernism

Post-modern theory has led to the problematizing of marginalized and "other" peoples and cultures and to viewing homosexuality as a social construction.

arts >> Overview:  Pulp Paperbacks and Their Covers

Despite the stereotyping of their cover art and their pathologizing of lesbianism, the American pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s subverted the social and political prohibitions against homosexual expression during the McCarthy era.

literature >> Overview:  Science Fiction and Fantasy

Beginning with the "new wave" in the 1960s, science fiction and fantasy writers have explored openly and seriously issues of gender and sexual orientation.

literature >> Forrest, Katherine V.

Writer and editor Katherine V. Forrest has played a major role in bringing lesbian fiction to the forefront of the mystery and science fiction genres.

literature >> Goldsmith, Andrea

Australian novelist Andrea Goldsmith writes books that reflect her own life and dearest concerns--lesbian relationships, her hometown of Melbourne, Australian Jewish culture, and the inevitable, yet unpredictable, effect of the past upon the future.

literature >> Hart, Ellen

Prolific mystery writer Ellen Hart, winner of multiple Lambda Literary Awards, writes "whydunits" rather than "whodunits."

literature >> Maney, Mabel

San Francisco artist and satirist Mabel Maney spins lesbian adventure tales out of perky feminine archetypes from the 1950s and 1960s.

literature >> McDermid, Val

Award-winning mystery writer Val McDermid writes three successful series of novels, including one featuring lesbian investigative reporter Lindsay Gordon.

literature >> Porter, Dorothy

The work of Australian lesbian poet Dorothy Porter presents a cheeky challenge to a literary establishment whose poetry has often been defined by pretension and obfuscation.

literature >> Redmann, J. M.

J. M. Redmann, the Lambda Award-winning creator of the New Orleans mystery series featuring Micky Knight, writes richly textured novels focused on issues of power and family.

literature >> Schulman, Sarah

Author and playwright Sarah Schulman is concerned with constructing a lesbian identity around and against the multicultural identities of New York.

literature >> Wittig, Monique

The controversial lesbian author and theorist Monique Wittig has produced some of the most challenging fictional and theoretical work of second-wave feminism.


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

_____. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Diana Fuss, ed. New York: Routledge, 1991. 13-31.

Munt, Sally R. "The Investigators: Lesbian Crime Fiction." Sweet Dreams: Gender, Sexuality and Popular Fiction. Susannah Radstone, ed. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988. 91-120.

_____. Murder by the Book: Feminism and the Crime Novel. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Palmer, Paulina. "The Lesbian Feminist Thriller and Detective Novel." What Lesbians Do in Books. Elaine Hobby and Chris White, eds. London: Women's Press, 1991. 9-27.

Reddy, Maureen T. Sisters in Crime. New York: Continuum, 1988.

Wittig, Monique. Les Guérrillères. New York: Viking, 1971.


    Citation Information
    Author: Munt, Sally R.  
    Entry Title: Mystery Fiction: Lesbian  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 6, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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