by Lorie Lewis Ham
In honor of Pride this year we thought we would do something a little different—we reached out to several of the LGBTQ+ mystery authors that we have covered in the past and asked them to share their favorite LGBTQ+ mysteries.
My pick would be Fadeout by Joseph Hansen. It’s the first Dave Brandstetter mystery, a character who, in turn, was the first openly gay private eye character in mystery fiction. (Technically he’s an insurance investigator, but I say it counts.) In addition to being a groundbreaking novel, Fadeout—and the whole series—features effortless dialogue gorgeous, gimlet-eyed, sun and liquor-soaked SoCal prose. Hansen wrote like Raymond Chandler, but without the homophobia that makes the Marlowe series tough to read at points in 2020. I recommend the Dave Brandstetter series to anyone interested in queer or influential mystery series (or just plain old good books).
Set in San Francisco during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Carved in Bone by Michael Nava brilliantly paints a picture of the hedonistic pleasures with the dark shadow of the era. Henry Rios is a complicated, flawed protagonist with a penchant to help the little guy. In Carved in Bone, the story of newly sober Henry trying to rebuild his defense attorney practice parallels the story of the life of Bill Ryan, whose death Henry is investigating. While Henry’s is about his life after joining Alcoholics Anonymous with gut-wrenching reality, Bill’s takes us back to 1971 when he first arrived in the city at the age of 18 up to his death in 1984. Both stories are compelling, sad, and remarkably told. To reach the end without feeling as if you read a depressing novel is a testament to Nava’s skill. It should be no surprise he is a seven-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for best gay novel.
Previously, I would have been hard pressed to choose which of the Henry Rios mysteries by Michael Nava was my favorite. Since the recent release of Carved in Bone, I don’t have to give it a second thought.
One of the brightest lights today in lesbian fiction is the writer Ann McMann, the author of nine novels and a couple of short story collections. I first discovered Ann’s stories after meeting her at a writing conference. I went home with a signed copy of an early book and started reading. To my delight, I found that her work was not only smart and topical, but filled with intelligence and a wry sense of humor. Her newest novel, Galileo, (Bywater, 2019) just won the Lambda Literary Award for best lesbian mystery, so I’m not alone in my high opinion of her talents. Galileo is the second in the Evan Reed mystery series. In it, McMann takes on a difficult subject—the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church—and handles it with empathy and care. If you’re searching for a new, contemporary voice in mystery fiction, look no further.
Neil Plakcy (two authors picked the same author without knowing that the other had-so this one gets a double recommendation!)
I was living in New York, working on a construction site, and still in the closet when I was first introduced to the detective fiction of Joseph Hansen.
My college friend Joyce had accepted a job in her hometown of Baltimore, and she and her husband were clearing out their house in north Jersey in preparation for the move. I drove out there to say goodbye, and ended up in her garage with her husband Hank, a big fan of mystery fiction.
“You should take these,” he said, handing me a bunch of books. “See if you like any of them.”
That pile included Ellis Peters, Colin Dexter, and Joseph Hansen, who were to become three of my favorite authors. The one who made the most impact on me was Hansen, though.
His protagonist, Dave Brandstetter, was a solid, middle-aged man in southern California, working as a claims investigator for his father’s insurance firm. He was also openly gay, at a time when the only other gay men I knew were flamboyant ones like Liberace and Paul Lynde.
Brandstetter was unapologetic about his orientation, though he knew it kept him from working for anyone other than his father. At the time the series opened with Fadeout, he was mourning the loss of a long-time partner, and through the next twenty-one years, to the last book, A Country of Old Men, published by Viking in 1991, he investigated twelve cases, met a younger lover and took him into his home.
It was revolutionary to me, in part because Hansen was first published by Harper & Row in 1970, only a short time after the Stonewall riots that goosed the gay liberation movement. I devoured the books, and was heartbroken at the end of the last one. But I am a better person, and a better writer, for having encountered Joseph Hansen’s books.
For years after coming out as trans and a lesbian, I searched for queer literature beyond the usual fare of coming out stories, romance, and erotica. I began to despair until I discovered Katherine V. Forrest’s groundbreaking Kate Delafield mystery series. The stories didn’t revolve around Kate’s identity as a lesbian, but around her profession as a cop. The stories were great mysteries first and foremost. Kate’s sexuality provided a lens through which these stories were told. They provided a framework that explored the challenges we faced without making that the bread and butter of the novels. And that was exactly what I wanted. Entertainment that showed that we in the queer community aren’t defined by our sexuality or our identities, but that our experiences are shaped by them.
I would thank all of these wonderful mystery writers for sharing with us—I personally plan to check all of these books out, and I hope you will as well. Also be sure to check out the authors who have shared in this article, as they have some awesome books as well–all of which we have covered here in KRL! What a great way to celebrate Pride!
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Be sure to check out our new mystery podcast too with mystery short stories, and first chapters read by local actors. A new episode goes up next week. Originally the podcast was going to feature the first chapter of Chased by Dharma Kelleher during Pride month, but due to the pandemic it had to be moved to November.
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Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases using those links. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.