Toronto
3 min

Even the low brows like us

Being Gay becomes run of the mill plot device

PAPERBACK QUEERS? Current crop of gay-inflected mysteries, cop shows and detective novels intended for the Walmart audience. Credit: Xtra files

Michael Connelly’s LA-based mysteries are gripping, hard-boiled and heavy with an almost Catholic sense of sin and corruption. His hero, detective Harry (short for Hieronymous) Bosch, exudes a very righteous machismo and, as his name suggests, he’s seen more than his fair share of contemporary hells.



In short, it’s a very male world full of sharks and tough guys and ambitious crusaders.



So it came as a surprise to discover the following bit of dialogue early in Connelly’s 1999 book, Angels Flight. An internal affairs detective with a chip on his shoulder asks Bosch about the relationship between a senior female cop and Bosch’s partner, Kizmin Rider. “So what’s the deal with her and Rider? They still munching each other’s pie on the side?”



The interesting thing here is not Connelly’s impressive mastery of street slang or even the none too subtle disclosure of a lesbian relationship lurking somewhere in the backstory. Dyke detectives are a dime a dozen these days. They’ve showed up in Reginald Hill’s critically acclaimed mystery, On Beulah Heights, NYPD Blue and the ground-breaking British cop show, Inside The Line, where the stunning Siobhan Redmond played a feisty Scots detective. (The actor who played her lover made a small career of the lesbian thing. She went on to play an icey lesbian doctor on the British melodrama, The Lakes.)



Graphic colloquialism aside, the interesting thing about the lesbian angle is Bosch’s reaction. He knows that this is a power play – the other guy is demonstrating his mastery of departmental secrets – and reacts accordingly, which is to say, he doesn’t. He knows about the relationship and doesn’t care.



In certain spheres of society that sort of reaction would not be unexpected. The literary world, for instance, was less interested in the homo content of Jonathan Franzen’s recent award-winning book, The Corrections, than his controversial dust-up with Oprah over the literary merits of her book club. A feisty dyke chef is at the centre of Franzen’s savage satire but that didn’t stop critics from awarding him the National Book Award.



Nor did it stop producers from snapping up the film rights. The film version will be directed by Stephen Daldry, the same guy who directed the film adaptation of another award-winning gay story, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. The latter opens this October with Vanessa Redgrave playing an older lesbian.



But the people who’ll read these very literary books and see the undoubtedly arty adaptations are probably the same people who will watch Mike Nichols’s six-hour adaptation of Angels In America for HBO, or the innumerable English miniseries that crop up on PBS or TVO.



The Cazalets, The Lakes, Love In A Cold Climate – they’ve all featured queer characters: dyke couples in the first two and a swanning gay gigolo in the latter. And to the best of my knowledge, nobody in the audience – which is the traditionally liberal, educated and often affluent audience for public TV – has ever objected. Were the shows experimental forays into late-night sex on the wharves of New York, audience reaction might be different, but here the combination of conventional forms and foreign settings preempts any serious criticism. If it’s an English realist drama, it must be respectable.



In this respect, nothing much has changed since the 1930s. There’s an unapologetically gay character named Neville in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and a mild bit of gender-bending in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, both from the early 1930s.



“Miss Runcible wore trousers,” wrote Waugh in his second novel, “and Miles touched up his eyelashes in the dining-room of the hotel where they stopped for luncheon. So they were asked to leave.”



But these were literary novels intended for a literary audience and the would-be sophisticates who read them weren’t likely to be shocked.



The interesting thing about the current crop of gay-inflected mysteries, cop shows and detective novels is that they’re intended for what you might call the Walmart audience. These are the books people snap up at midnight in all-night drug stores and cheesy convenience stores, and they presume a certain sympatico between reader and story. Why read them if not for comfort?



And the fact that people are reading them says more about current attitudes than any number of court decisions on marriage and spousal rights. Legal decisions are made by the elites. Paperback mysteries are bought by the masses.



So it’s interesting that there’s a very gay antiques dealer in Martha Grimes’s enduringly popular series of English pub mysteries (Five Bells and Bladebone, etc) and that one of her two heroes comes across as a poof, even if he’s not.



And it’s interesting that one of the suspects in Giles Blunt’s award-winning Canadian mystery, Forty Words For Sorrow (set in a thinly disguised version of Mike Harris’s hometown), is a gay high school teacher, who meets a much younger guy on the Internet but turns out to be a somewhat sententious saint with something to say. His on-line correspondence with the young homo may not have been intellectual, he says, but it was both intelligent and important.



Coming out, he says, “is the most difficult piece of self-analysis most people are ever called upon to make.”



My how the genres have tumbled. Today the mystery, tomorrow the romance. Next thing you know they’ll be shipping gay Harlequins to Shoppers Drug Mart.