Read this exclusive guest post from Neil S. Plakcy about the history of homosexuality in crime fiction, and then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of The Next One Will Kill You!
Before I wrote my first mystery, I read Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Erle Stanley Gardner. And before I wrote my first mystery featuring a gay detective, I read Joseph Hansen, Michael Nava, Mark Zubro, and Nathan Aldyne.
Just as Christie, Sayers, and Gardner were among the pioneers of the contemporary mystery, Hansen, Nava, Zubro, and Aldyne were the leaders in incorporating gay characters into crime fiction. Their books opened doors into gay culture at a time when homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder and a sure way to break a mother’s heart.
These detectives were able to penetrate closed groups, to empathize with those who were suffering, and to protect those who were unable to present their true selves to society. They had unique insights not available to straight cops (at least not at the time) and often used unorthodox means to bring justice to the afflicted.
A straight friend—a mystery fiction fan—recommended Joseph Hansen to me. He was one of the very first mainstream authors to write about a gay detective—an insurance investigator named Dave Brandstetter. His first book, Fadeout, came out from Harper and Row in 1970. His wasn’t the first gay detective to hit print—that honor, I believe, belongs to Pharoah Love, a sexy, sassy African-American police detective working in Manhattan, authored by George Baxt. Love was too much a caricature for me, but I guess that was due to the times.
Brandstetter, on the other hand, was a masculine guy and worked for his father’s insurance company investigating claims. From him, I learned about the way that LGBT people stuck together and helped each other out. For example, when Brandstetter needed information from the phone company, he called a lesbian friend. I devoured the books, reading as Brandstetter went through relationships, aged—acted like a regular guy. At the end of the last book in the series, I was heartbroken. I felt like I’d lost a close friend.
My discovery of Hansen opened a new world to me, and next I discovered Michael Nava—a California attorney of Mexican heritage with a strong social conscience. His seven mysteries starring gay Hispanic attorney Henry Rios focus a great deal on the AIDS epidemic and its effect on men, their friends, and their families, and they can be heart breaking. The last in the series, Rag and Bone, shows a novelist at the top of his craft. A family drama pulls Henry in and leads him to some life-changing decisions. I recently read that Nava has a new Henry Rios book coming soon, and I’m looking forward to it.
Mark Zubro also has a strong social conscience, but his books are leavened with humor and a biting sarcasm directed against homophobes and school administrators, among other awful sorts. He alternates between two series, both set in Chicago. Schoolteacher Tom Mason and his lover (and eventual husband), baseball star Scott Carpenter, are amateur sleuths who solve crimes and fight for justice in schools and gay neighborhoods, focusing on community, friendship, and fairness in all things. First in the series was A Simple Suburban Murder, published by St. Martin’s Press in 1989. Tom discovers the body of a colleague in his classroom, and to clear the main suspect, a former student, he and Scott delve into child prostitution and snuff movies.
Zubro’s second series focuses on Paul Turner, an openly gay homicide detective—a rarity at the time of the first book, Sorry Now, published by St. Martin’s in 1991. In that book, the murderers know how to go right for Paul's Achilles heel—his two sons, one of whom has spina bifida. Zubro has said that he created Turner to show another side of gay life: a devoted father whose kids come first.
I feel quite privileged to call Zubro a friend, and even more so to have served as his editor for several of the recent Tom and Scott and Paul Turner mysteries, published by MLR Press. It’s an interesting situation for me because I come to the books as a fan first and editor second.
Zubro was among many great authors of the genre who were published in trade paperback by St. Martin’s Stonewall Inn mysteries, helmed by gay editor Michael Denneny. St. Martin’s was, as far as I know, the first mainstream publisher to set up a gay imprint, with Richard Stevenson, Grant Michaels, and Michael Craft among its stable of authors. It’s probably telling of the mainstreaming of gay culture that St. Martin’s eventually shut the imprint down and shifted those authors it retained into their frontlist.
The fourth author who influenced me was actually two men writing under one name. Michael McDowell, a novelist and screenwriter (Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas), and the late Dennis Schuetz wrote four color-coded mysteries under the name Nathan Aldyne: Canary, Slate, Vermilion, and Cobalt. The detective here is Daniel Valentine, a bartender who was once a social worker and still seemed to long for that occupation now and then. His sidekick, a straight woman named Clarisse, starts out as a realtor and then goes to law school, but she continues to hold a torch for Daniel, who is most resolutely gay. The culture of the gay bar is on display here, as well as what it was like to live in Boston in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Most of these books were already out of print by the time I discovered the genre, and I prowled discount bookstores from New York to San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale to find them. Many came out only in mass market paperbacks, and once they were sold out, they were gone. Others were published in trade paperback editions—and almost none of them made it into public library systems. Today, some have come out as ebooks, but others are available only in used editions.
Many of them, particularly the authors who only wrote one or two titles, have faded away almost completely. Those who are interested in learning more can check out The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film by D. Wayne Gunn, an awesome compendium of the field as of the book’s publication date, 2012.
Together, these authors stitched a quilt that reflected the diversity of gay experience. Daniel Valentine and Stevenson’s Don Strachey were both pretty promiscuous—in Strachey’s case at least until he settled down with his boyfriend, former Jesuit Timmy Callahan, whose morals provide a great counterbalance to Don’s “get-it-done” mentality. Tom and Scott are resolutely monogamous and celebrate a gorgeous wedding long before everyone on reality TV was doing so.
As for me, I want to keep up these traditions, and I think that Angus Green, the openly gay FBI agent at the center of The Next One Will Kill You, is a true descendant of those who have come before him.
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Neil Plakcy’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Verbsap, Blithe House Quarterly and In The Family, as well as winning first prize in a South Florida magazine contest. He is an assistant professor of English at Broward College and the proud papa of a white golden retriever named Brody.