The strange case of the missing gay detectives

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THEY ARE tough, glamorous, usually blonde, with a firm figures and a healthy sexual appetite, and they've got the likes of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade on the run.

Lesbian detectives like Carole Ashton, Kate Delafield, and Emma Victor, are muscling in on crime fiction and have never been more popular.

But while business is booming for them, gay men, it seems, are non-starters in the world of the whodunnit. Conjecture about the relationship between Holmes and Watson apart, gay gumshoes are about as rare as non-smokers in Chandler's The Big Sleep.

Professor Stephen Knight, who has been researching the curious case of the missing gay detective, says their absence is, well, a mystery.

"There is a near absence of crime fiction written from a male homosexual viewpoint," says professor Knight of the University of Wales, Cardiff, who talks about the issue in a paper he is presenting at an international conference on crime fiction in Germany this week. "There have been contenders, like Dave Brandtstetter, a California private eye who is firmly but discreetly homosexual, and Dan Kananagh's unobtrusively homosexual London detective, Duffy, but they have not had the success of the lesbian sub genre.

He says the reasons for the absence are puzzling: "It may be that the genre is not considered suitable, maybe too unsophisticated."

He points out that there has been an on-going debate about the orientation of Holmes and Watson, but without resolution: "Whether we call this relationship simply homosocial or see it bearing the stronger emotive weight of homosexuality is a matter for debate." he says.

"The influential first American stage version of Sherlock Holmes was shaped as a real dandy and based on Oscar Wilde himself. But that transsexual perception has been masked by the English through their ritual adoption of the aggressive hunting costume of deerstalker hat and Inverness cape that in fact were rarely worn by Holmes in the stories."

But even in genderless Sherlock Holes there are hints about sexuality: "Sex is whispered about. The first story of all, a Scandal in Bohemia, begins with Watson explaining how to Holmes love would be like a crack in a high powered magnifying glass, suggesting a vaginal image of imperfection and disruption."

While there may be few gay male detectives, there is no such reticence with writings about lesbian detectives or about including sex up front. Inspector Carole Ashton, described as being "more glamorous than Sydney Harbour itself" has intense relationships with female suspects. Private eye Emma Victor, who figures in novels with titles that include, She Came too Late, and She Came in a Flash, also has fun.

"I think more or less every publisher now has a lesbian detective because there is a big market out there, a real audience. There are more books and more characters appearing all the time. It is big business," says professor Knight. He says that while many fictional detectives, like Homes and Watson, Hercules Poirot and Dupin, were effectively genderless, with little romance, many of the lesbian novels are not so restrained.

"The characters work hard and they play hard. They have fun and the books are very entertaining to read," says professor Knight.

As well as lesbian detectives there are an increasing number of feminist detectives too, he says. "Gender has itself become a main subject and can be debated by the characters as well as the author, as when Sara Paretsky's V I Warshawski reflects on her past in the women's movement, and in some of its more vigorous actions, of questions whether an independent woman's loyalty should go first to clients, to family or always to her sisters in the gender."

Leading article, Review, page 3

Detectives with Lipstick on their Collars

Creator: Mary Wings

Character: Emma Victor

Books include `She Came Too Late', `She Came in a Flash', `She Came to the Castro', `She Came by the Book'.

American private eye, been described as a designer Philip Marlowe.She now solves murders in a fashion described as an urbane study of lesbian sexuality in Raymond Chandler style. Sample dialogue: "She was a warm body. I didn't want to know her. And I didn't want to notice the small black charcoal hole in the back of her trench coat."

Creator: Val McDermid

Character: Lindsay Gordon

Books include `Report for Murder', `Common Murder', `Union Jack' and `Final Edition'.

Lindsay is, in her own words, a cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist. She has a whisky and cigarettes habit and likes hanging around police interrogation rooms. Principled, tough, straight-speaking, witty, strong- minded, loving, passionate, pragmatic, independent, stubborn, unapproachable, she has a big following.

Creator: Katherine V Forrest

Character: Kate Delafield

Books include `Apparition Alley'.

Kate is a homicide detective working in a homophobic LA police department. In one novel she is wounded by friendly fire. A `gay basher' is suspected and so too are colleagues. She solves police corruption while coming to terms with her own personal demons.

Creator: Clair McNab

Character: Carol Ashton

Books include `Chain Letter' and there are now more than eight titles.

Carol is a tough Sydney police detective who solves corruption murders and major crime. Worldly and attractive - "as glamorous as Sydney Harbor" - and not amiss to the odd fling with an attractive women suspect once, of course, she has been cleared.