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Mystery Fiction: Lesbian  
 
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Although most lesbian mystery fiction reflects a political stance, the most effective lesbian crime novels have been those that have most enthusiastically embraced the need to entertain the reader.

The lesbian mystery novel has its origins in the ubiquitous lesbian pulp fictions of the 1950s and early 1960s. A paradigm of deviance, drugs, and urban decay located these literary lesbians in lonely antithesis to the security of the law-abiding suburban American dream.

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Such popular potboilers constituted a plethora of splendidly sordid sensationals blessed with such titles as Strange Sisters, The Shadowy Sex, and Lesbians in Black Lace. These books were primarily about sex, supposedly written for prurient heterosexual males, but lesbian readers loved them.

The thrilling glimpse into an underworld of intrigue and suspense is redelivered in the lesbian crime novels of the present, which allow us to step into, relish, and then render safe, a quagmire of sex, violence, and death.

The Lesbian Feminist Crime Novel

The first lesbian feminist crime novel was M. F. Beal's Angel Dance (1977). Its angry, complex, visionary indictment of heterosexual and patriarchal capitalism is steaming with the peculiar energy of 1970s protest culture. The Chicana detective and first-person narrator Kat Guerrera is a subversive. The character embodies the way class, race, gender, and sexuality interface to uphold the hegemonic order of law. The corrupt power of the state is represented as being so extensive that concepts of "justice" can no longer be invoked.

This figure of the lesbian guerrilla was an icon of 1970s resistance culture, as distilled by French materialist philosopher Monique Wittig in her 1971 novel Les Guérillères. This invention of a new, militant category of lesbian, inspired by the myth of the Amazon, invigorated a whole community of women to declare war on the political institution of heterosexuality. The lesbian detectives reproduced this figure in the 1980s and 1990s.

The traditional crime novel is a site for the expression of anxieties about society in which the enemy is named and destroyed. In the lesbian and feminist crime novel, the terms often become inverted so that the state is identified as the corrupt enemy, and the lesbian sleuth, normally the feared and hated Other, is the victor.

The narrative resolution of the mystery is resolved in two stages: First, by using the process of individuation intrinsic to the thriller mode, the lesbian hero achieves self-determination; second, she becomes integrated into a community. The first phase is often represented by coming out, the second frequently by finding love or discovering the lesbian community, in a movement toward politicized integration.

Forming an Identity through Solving a Crime

These structures are to be found in other lesbian literary genres, but in mystery novels the formation of an identity happens through the solution of a crime. The central narrative device and locus of readerly pleasure is discovery.

For example, in an early feminist bestseller, Murder in the Collective by Barbara Wilson (1984), we meet Pam Nilsen, thinly disguised Proto-Dyke. Her hands sweat and her body is wracked by erotic fevers as she gulps and swallows in the presence of Hadley. They eventually manage to consummate their lust; however, the romantic tension is yoked to the crime fiction hermeneutic of alternate disclosure and disappointment.

Pam's new identity gives her individuality through a sense of difference, not just from her (heterosexual) twin, but in the series of dialectical oppositions set up by the text around race, class, gender, and sexuality. "Identity" is seen as a transitional process of discovery involving contradictory states of desire--for sex and for a new "self."

Identities that Change to Fit the Times

The new identities offered to the reader of the lesbian mystery novel are dependent upon the possible political alternatives presented by any given cultural period or context. Thus, texts of the 1970s offer different models of sexuality from texts of the 1980s or 1990s.

Early lesbian feminist crime novels of the 1980s tended to be inflected by the specific countercultural discourses of that time, structuring men as the enemy and making lesbian feminism a heroic principle. The signposts of lesbian feminism--sisterhood, collectivism, "wimmin's" energy, and "wombyn's" anger--are smattered throughout these texts.

By the mid- and late-1980s, however, the prerogative of identity politics had seemingly superseded the earlier lesbian feminism, and consequently, a complex critique of diverse social forces began to emerge.

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