BY MARIE-JO PROULX
Judith A. Markowitz likes a good mystery. She is especially interested in those that feature gay or lesbian detectives as their main character. Markowitz is such a fan that she has just written a book of her own, entitled The Gay Detective Novel, which catalogues the surprising breadth of this specific literary genre. At the Gerber/Hart Library in January, she gave the first of a series of talks on the topic.
As part of her research, Markowitz interviewed 65 authors, most but not all of them gay. The number represents only a portion of the names mentioned in the comprehensive, 302-page reference book. The entire project took three years to complete. Except for the very few that are no longer in print, she has read every one of the hundreds of indexed titles.
An established speech technologies specialist with her own consultancy business, Markowitz usually spends her time advising corporations on voice identification and biometrics. Asked if there was a link between her professional expertise and the investigation of murder suspects, she admitted an interest in forensics, but wouldn't make too much of the similarity, talking instead about her desire to promote underexposed talent. 'When I told people I was writing a book on gay and lesbian mystery novels they would say, 'Are there enough?' That's why I wrote this book.'
There are indeed many more than the average gay or lesbian reader might suspect. While some writers have managed to create prolific series around a single character, others have had success with various protagonists and different types of narratives. Joseph Hansen, whose investigator Dave Brandsetter series began in 1970, has attracted a growing readership that spans generations. His twelfth and last installment won a Lambda Award in 1991. Brandsetter is considered the first positive gay character in a mystery series.
Markowitz explained that each novel is as much a product of an author's creative imagination as of the era and social environment it is published in. 'You can't look at these books as if they exist on their own,' she reminded the audience. For example, in 1977, Mary F. Beal wrote Angel Dance, which introduced activist Kat Guerrera, the first lesbian amateur detective who was also the first Latina main character. Perhaps as a sign of the time, the novel overtly stretched the mystery format into an anti-establishment manifesto.
When it comes to gay and lesbian detectives, private investigators, or amateur sleuths, the traditional themes of police corruption, abuse of power, mistaken identities, and romantic intrigue, are often supplemented with more personal ones like homophobia and the openly out/in the closet dilemma.
But it would be wrong to think that such stories are autobiographical, Markowitz warned.
'People always assume the main character is based on the author,' she remarked. 'In the case of Katherine Forrest, they were saying, 'Aha! This character is named Kate, well … ' when in fact it couldn't be further from the truth because the character is someone who is so deeply imbedded in the closet she is glued to the inside of the door … . That's the last thing you can say about Katherine Forrest. She is out there.'
For readers who are not familiar with mysteries, or for those who may want to expand their collection, Markowitz recommends the following authors: Hansen ( who wrote 35 books, founded the gay journal Tangents ) ; Forrest ( whose Curious Wine is one of the bestselling lesbian novels of all time ) ; Sandra Scoppettone ( for a complex plot ) ; Fred Hunter ( for a lighter read and stories set in Chicago ) ; Barbara Wilson/Sjoholm ( especially her second series with protagonist Cassandra Reilly, winner of many awards ) ; and Michael Nava ( an attorney who received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001 for his mystery series and other non-fiction writings ) .
In closing, Markowitz commented on an interesting development within LGBT literature.
Originally, most gay detective novels tended to be humorous and campy while lesbian ones, influenced by the rise of feminism, had a more serious tone. Over time, Markowitz has observed a gradual reversal of these styles. Last year's Lambda Awards for mystery seem to attest to this shift. John Morgan Wilson won the men's category with a main character whose history includes killing his father and later being raped. Elizabeth Simms took the women's honors for Damn Straight, a book full of subtle comic references that she said she wrote to make the astute reader laugh.
Countless others can be discovered, analyzed, and compared throughout the five main sections of The Gay Detective Novel. While Markowitz is aware that many people consider mysteries a sub-literature, she defends the genre and praises the 'wonderful creativity' of gay and lesbian writers. Speaking of the significance of the stories they tell, she insisted, 'They are distinct because they are about us.'
The next lecture in the series will take place Thursday, Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. For a complete list of upcoming dates and themes, see www.gerberhart.org .
To order The Gay Detective Novel, see www.mcfarlandpub.com .