Read Kristen Lepionka's quick-hits list of the top depictions of queer identities in crime fiction, and then make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of her upcoming debut novel, The Last Place You Look!
The Quiltbag Detective sounds like a great title for a cozy series, right? QUILTBAG is actually an acronym*—a catchy, inclusive one gaining popularity for the LGBTQ+ set. Crime fiction actually has a long history of homophobic language in its pages, but despite that—or maybe in spite of it—queer detective characters have been around for some time, able to navigate spaces that straight characters can’t and provide insights that straight characters don’t see.
From the over-the-top camp of Lou Rand’s The Gay Detective (1961, also published as Rough Trade)—widely regarded as the first American gay detective character, whose sexual orientation is cloaked in not-so-subtle innuendo and sarcasm—to the 16 Lambda finalists for gay and lesbian mystery last year, there are plenty of writers with compelling depictions of queer identities in crime fiction. Here’s a brief primer on some of the high notes. (A number of these are out of print at the moment, so polish up your library card or your magnifying glass for a used bookstore treasure hunt.)
Debuting in 1966, A Queer Kind of Death introduced readers to Pharoah Love, the first black, gay detective character. Love borders on caricature, but Baxt’s representation of the gay subculture in Manhattan is significant.
The first openly gay mainstream character is widely considered to be Dave Brandstetter, first appearing in Fadeout (1970). Dave is an insurance investigator, not a PI, but he has the droll Southern California attitude of Phillip Marlowe but with an extra dose of empathy. Smart, exquisite prose throughout this series.
1977’s Angel Dance stars Kat Guerrera, a Latin journalist turned unofficial PI who also happens to be one of the first American lesbian detective characters. This book is a wild ride through political intrigue, sex, drugs, and 70s feminism; groundbreaking and a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre.
Katherine V. Forrest
In 1984 the world met Kate Delafield, Forrest’s lesbian police detective in Los Angeles. She stars in nine books, and my favorite is The Beverly Malibu, a solid procedural with good old-fashioned police work, a hotel full of secrets, and a sexy romance element.
Since 1989, lesbian sleuth Jane Lawless has starred in twenty-three mysteries and counting—five of which have won Lambda awards for lesbian mystery. Jane is a restaurant owner/private eye in Minneapolis in this series, which starts with Hallowed Murder and continues this year with Fever in the Dark.
Henry Rios is a burned out, gay attorney on the verge of quitting his job as a public defender when we meet him in The Little Death (1986), an intricately plotted mystery that follows multiple murders and the sinister side of probate law, which is way more interesting than it sounds.
Baker’s Virginia Kelly is one of the first black lesbian sleuths. Virginia debuted in The Lavender House Murders (1992) and continues solving crimes through three additional entries. This series is a standout for Virginia’s smart, funny, introspective voice.
A personal favorite of mine is Dry Fire (1996), a painfully realistic coming-of-age story and procedural novel that follows Abby, a lesbian police cadet and eventual patrol officer in North Florida. This book is a standalone and Lewis’s only novel for adults, but it has an ending that leaves you heartbroken in the best way.
Nick Holloway is a university professor and solver of murders in academia—of which there are more than you might think in this witty series that started in 1996 as well. I especially like Death of a Constant Lover, not least because it pokes a bit of fun at the amateur sleuth convention by acknowledging the veritable pandemic of violent crime at the State University of Michigan.
Okay, so the protagonist of Seven Moves is not a detective, and this book isn’t exactly a mystery, but it concerns the disappearance of Christine’s lover, Taylor, and the investigation into what it really means to know someone that follows. Written in gorgeous, literary prose, there is a lot to enjoy here for crime fiction readers who want a deep dive into a missing persons case.
James’s Transition to Murder follows hairdresser and transgender woman Bobbi Logan’s journey as she transitions from a gay man to a woman while also battling a psychopathic killer targeting trans women in the close-knit LGBTQ+ Boystown community of Chicago. The idea of a trans protagonist in the genre is new ground, as the usual appearance of a transgender person in crime fiction or television is as a victim or plot device. Bobbi is an instantly likable heroine with a refreshing point of view on the way a person’s gender identity informs how we move through the world.
A snappy historical mystery, Criminal Gold is set in the gritty underworld of late 1940s New York. It hits all the marks: a crime boss, a wily fence, the mysterious death of a gangster's moll, and (of course) a femme fatale whose pretty face may or may not be masking the duplicitous darkness of her heart. What sets this novel apart is Cantor Gold, the tough-talking, short-haired, silk-suited, lesbian art smuggler at the center of the tale. It's a unique blend of lesbian pulp and the typical period detective novel as well as the first in the Lambda Award-winning series starring Cantor Gold.
Know of others? Drop a note in the comments!
*QUILTBAG stands for Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay
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Kristen Lepionka grew up mostly in her local public library, where she could be found with a big stack of adult mysteries before she was out of middle school. In the name of writing research, she has gone on multiple police ridealongs, taken a lock-picking class, trespassed through an abandoned granary, and hiked inside an Icelandic volcano. Her writing has been selected for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Grift, and Black Elephant. She is also the editor of Betty Fedora, a semi-annual journal that publishes feminist crime fiction, and lives in Columbus, Ohio with her partner and two cats.