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Queering Crime Stories: Establishing a New Order in Mysteries and Thrillers

Queering Crime Stories: Establishing a New Order in Mysteries and Thrillers

A traditional mystery or whodunit offers a recognizable milieu with social and physical limitations, whether it’s a small village or a city apartment building. The inciting incident is a crime, often a murder, that ruptures its peaceful status quo. To restore order, the transgressor must be discovered and brought to justice. The world as it appears, which has been taken for granted, must be exposed as fraudulent by the detective. While the events have changed characters and illusions have fallen away by the end, the moral order that was initially violated regains its shape. The ethical system in which the community operates is rarely questioned in a typical whodunit; the order being restored is, well, an old order, one it assumes the audience supports, and the vanquishing of the villain is a celebration of the durability of that order. This is understandably reassuring. It’s why so many people watched Murder She Wrote re-runs during the pandemic and the unrest after the murder of George Floyd—but can it be problematic?

Well, yes and no. A story structure that illustrates the moral value that knowing the truth is freeing and can pave the path to justice is why we still enthusiastically consume these narratives, everything from Agatha Christie novels to Only Murders in the Building. In that sense, they have an unshakably moral purpose. However, as a gay man who writes historical fiction, I’m aware of the ways that conventional morality and social and legal systems built on its bedrock have failed (and continue to fail) queer people. In the 1950s, The Lavender Scare, a subset of the anti-communist hysteria, was the government-sanctioned dismissal and outing of 5000 federal employees based on their suspected sexual orientation. They were deemed security risks because, the logic ran, they could be blackmailed by Soviet agents to divulge state secrets, although this rarely occurred and was largely unsuccessful when it did. It ruined careers, rendering many unable to find work, and drove some victims to take their lives. My new mystery, Hall of Mirrors, set in 1954, DC, is about the consequences of this initiative on a gay mystery writing duo, one of whom dies by suicide, or so the police presume.

Systemic oppression, of course, is hardly just historical. We are still witnessing these systems fail queer people today. At the writing of this article, 426 anti-trans bills are being actively pursued in state legislatures focused on everything from education to healthcare. There’s also the ongoing battle against LGBTQ+ book banning in schools and libraries, not to mention a rise in violence toward queer people, especially trans and nonbinary people of color, most notably, the bullying and death of Nex Benedict.

Aware that elements of mainstream morality fed some of these oppressive systems, queer crime writers like me have begun to rethink and, in different ways, challenge what a mystery plot communicates.

Aware that elements of mainstream morality fed some of these oppressive systems, queer crime writers like me have begun to rethink and, in different ways, challenge what a mystery plot communicates. After all, same-sex acts were illegal in many states well into the early 2000s. Returning to a traditional moral order by the conclusion of a mystery is, in the general sense of the term, conservative, a testament to the hardiness of conventional concepts of right and wrong. While uncovering truth remains an unquestionably steadfast element of crime fiction, for queer people—for this queer person—returning to the status quo suggests stagnation. What if, by the end of a mystery, we don’t want to return to where we were but to a new place of openness and acceptance, free from the judgmental gaze that conflates being queer with corruption, disease, or, at worst, being less than human? Crime fiction, as a reflection of the dominant values of different periods, has a long history of treating LGBTQ+ as all of the aforementioned. How, then, do we shape the story differently? How do we queer the mystery?

Of course, representation matters, and crime fiction needs to have more queer characters who have agency and complexity, but it’s not the only way to queer a mystery. While employing some of mystery fiction’s classic plot elements, subgenre authors of everything from legal thrillers to cozy capers to P.I. stories to blood-soaked noir expose systemic injustice and urge readers to reconsider the default moral order.

For instance, in her legal thrillers featuring Erin McCabe, a trans-woman defense attorney, Robyn Gigl explores gaps in our justice system, which time and again has failed to protect the LGBTQ+ community. McCabe defends trans and queer characters, so she must juggle the investigation, bias baked into the legal system, the trauma of her clients, and her struggles to be seen and respected. By nature of the circumstances, the plot, on a literal level, addresses the myriad ways our judicial system needs to be revised to protect our most vulnerable citizens.

In Margot Douaihy’s Scorched Grace and Blessed Water, the tattooed, chain-smoking queer nun and amateur sleuth-cum-private investigator, Sister Holiday, contains a mixture of contradictions, vice mingling with virtue, a desire to know the hard truth and faith in the unknowable. Like Gigl, Douaihy set her sights on systemic injustice, but instead of the legal system, she harnesses a noir sensibility and a PI plot to expose the hypocrisies of the patriarchal clergy and the Catholic Church. Both writers position their main characters as opponents of systems of oppression; in a way of thinking, they become activist protagonists, and that activism drives the narrative.

Plot twists can also be queered. In Sarah Waters’s Paying Guests, a post-WWI historical noir, two women fall in love despite one being married to a man. When they accidentally kill the husband, they cover up the crime to protect themselves. If this were a Patricia Highsmith novel, like The Talented Mr. Ripley, we’d be aligned with and rooting for these two women but troubled by this identification, as if we’d been charmed into corruption. Being forced to confront the dark side of our nature is, indeed, a transgressive experience, but not affirming. Queering a narrative, almost always, is a disruption in our expectations, but it’s affirming, not pessimistic. Instead of horrifying, the transgressive twist is inspiring, gesturing toward a new order and critical of the status quo. In The Paying Guests, we’re aligned with these women and their cover-up, not because they have cleverly seduced us like Tom Ripley, but because we’ve been convinced that their crime is morally justified. They wouldn’t need to deceive the authorities if they weren’t marginalized. Committing a crime in an oppressive system can expose its flaws; sometimes, “getting away with it” celebrates characters’ agency and wit, not their baser impulses.

In Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox, the text itself is queered. In the novel, a scholar named Dr. Voth discovers a manuscript about the famous historical figure, Jack Sheppard, a notorious thief and prison breaker from 18th-century London. In this invented found document, Jack is a trans man, and the novel pursues his adventurers alongside Dr. Voth’s struggle to annotate and liberate the manuscript from the Kafka-esque halls of academia. It’s a metafictional thriller, using paratextual commentary, like footnotes, to highlight, expand, frustrate, and complicate the original manuscript. In the editor’s foreword, Dr. Voth writes, “The Publishers had been asking me if there was a code embedded in the document. There is. But not in the way the Publishers think” (xiv).

While Confessions of the Fox isn’t a mystery in the strictest sense of the term, it presents the reader with a mystery: Can we crack this code? Is it even crackable? Confessions pushes well beyond expectations most readers bring to contemporary crime fiction, which is a kind of transgression. To avoid returning to the old oppressive systems that bolster the status quo, the novel asks us to read and think differently, the only way to grasp its deeper meaning. For some readers, this will be asking too much, but there’s hope in the asking and, in that, something undeniably queer.

The mystery plot will always appeal to LGBTQ+ readers. After all, most of us have navigated coming out or, at least, considered it. It’s a gradual process that unfurls like the investigation, despite the dramatic coming-out scene you see in popular fiction and cinema. First, we interpret the clues our bodies send us. We begin, after all, as mysteries to ourselves. We then drop clues for others to pick up well before we speak the truth out loud; some clues are obvious, some more subtle, and others unintentional. Finally, there’s the big reveal: “Dad, Mom, I’m gay!” Like a traditional plot, there’s a steady process of interpreting clues, which, perhaps, is why queer readers have a strong affinity for the whodunit. Unlike a traditional plot, the big reveal isn’t about returning to a conventional moral order and setting the world straight again but questioning the old order and reaching beyond those traditional boundaries for something new.