Part 2 of the interview by Matthew Moore and Jon Michaelsen.
Wayne, thank you so much for agreeing to additional questions compiled by fellow member & super fan Matt Moore and I for the Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction Facebook group. We had more than the standard ten questions for you, so thank you for agreeing to a two-part interview!
MM – What authors do you believe brought gay mysteries to mainstream audiences and away from the explicit pulps of the 50s and 60s?
DWG – By “mainstream” I take it you mean both gay and straight readers. I wish sales figures were available for Rodney Garland’s The Heart in Exile. It did well enough for there to be both U.K. and U.S. editions, and it went into paperback. However, it was not marketed as a gay mystery; rather it was advertised as an expose of the homosexual underground in London. Yet it is the prototype for what was to come. Never mind that the victim kills himself, he is still murdered, and the psychiatrist-turned-sleuth works to unmask the villain. The novel has recently been reissued by Valancourt Books. It is a must read for anyone interested in the history of the gay mystery.
George Baxt’s A Queer Kind of Death was the first gay murder mystery published by a mainline press aimed at a mass audience. It launched Baxt’s career. There were two more books in the series (none of them, by the way, marketed as Pharoah Love mysteries at the time), and he went on to gather a following for his celebrity mysteries, many of which had gay characters. Then came Hansen’s Fadeout in 1970.
Other early mainstream crime novels with a strong gay element include Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, Ross Macdonald’s The Dark Tunnel and The Drowning Pool, Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Theodora Keogh’s The Double Door, Edward Ronns’s State Department Murders, Vin Packer’s (Marijane Meaker) Whisper His Sin, Margaret Millar’s Beast in View. Some of these were paperback originals. Lacking a gay detective, none of them shows up in The Gay Male Sleuth, but I cover them in Gay American Novels. The one thing they have in common is that the gay characters are despicable (with the possible exception of the ambiguous Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye and Paul Evarts in State Department Murders). This is also true of Baxt’s first novels.
After Garland’s novel the next gay detective shows up in a minor role in Martin Mayer’s A Voice That Fills the House. Then three important works appeared in 1961: William Drummond’s (Arthur Calder Marshall) novelization of the film Victim; Hugh Ross Williamson’s A Wicked Pack of Cards; and Lou Rand’s The Gay Detective. The last was put out by one of the erotic publishing houses on the West Coast and was thus probably not read by mainstream audiences. But it should be noted that pulp mysteries did not become sexually explicit until about 1967 or 1968. There is nothing in The Gay Detective to make your mother blush.
MM – As a judge for the Lambda Awards for Best Gay Mystery, what did you look for that made one book better than the rest?
DWG – Language, character, plot. Which book is the better written? Which has the more fully realized characters? Which has the better integrated story, with all the elements falling plausibly into place? (Which does not mean that every clue has to be solved.) There have always been three or four judges, so different tastes balance out. Sometimes the finalists may seem a bit eccentric to those who have not gone through the process, but every time I served there was always consensus about the winner.
I do wish that the name of the category would change from “mystery” to “crime fiction.” Some readers have trouble accepting thrillers, capers, inverted mysteries, spy novels, and the like as valid submissions. Also I wish the category would be reopened to true-crime writing; John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was the winner in 1994.
MM – Gay mysteries seem to be taking on a new life as more people are writing in the genre, but more and more are resorting to self-publishing, e-books originals, or smaller publishers like MLR and Untreed Reads. What do you think of the current market for gay mysteries?
DWG – From your question, I sense that you may be gaining the same impression that I am: that niche marketing is the rule these days. I think writers hurt themselves though when they write for a particular, preconceived audience. Powerful writing comes from the heart; niche writers rely too much on their heads (and sometimes their groins). At the moment I’m most interested in how gaining marriage equality will change the LGBT readership. Some critics assert that we have already moved into post-gay writing. What does that mean? What is one to make of the fact that some of the best crime writing is being turned out by openly gay writers who are not particularly interested in creating gay characters? I’m thinking of writers like Richard House and pre-London Spy Tom Rob Smith. Are we arriving to the point where gay literature, outside of niche marketing, is just part of literature in general?
MM – You mention Joseph Hansen in your preface to The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film: I feel like he has almost taken on a deified role in the gay mystery community; who else pulled you into this subgenre? Are there any current authors that you really enjoy reading?
DWG – It is easy to forget how good Hansen is. All one has to do is reread Fadeout to remember that he deserves his special status. Josh Lanyon in a chapter in The Hell You Say has a moving tribute to Hansen’s power. But who else pulled me into gay mysteries? Certainly Michael Nava’s Henry Rios series, which is another gold standard; Richard Stevenson’s Don Strachey; R. D. Zimmerman’s Todd Mills; Reginald Hill’s Wield (in particular Pictures of Perfection). Then Nathan Aldyne’s Val, John Preston’s Alex Kane, Julian Barnes’s bisexual Duffy, Joe Lansdale Leonard. (What about Hap and Leonard becoming a television series!) Later, Jack Dickson’s Jas Anderson, John Morgan Wilson’s Ben Justice (who may also have a crossover readership), Ken Bruen’s Porter Nash. Also, Greg Herren, Neil Plakcy, Anthony Bidulka, Dorien Grey, Josh Aterovis, Josh Lanyon.
Standalones that I admire include Robert Bentley’s Here There Be Dragons, Jeremy Beadle’s Death Scene, Teri White’s Cowboy Blues, Caro Soles’s The Tangled Boy. There’s a special place in my heart for Drew Gummerson’s romance The Lodger, Ashok Mathur’s inventive Once Upon an Elephant, Hal Bodner’s comical Bite Club. I remain fond of some pulp mysteries: works by Victor Banis, William Lambert (now better known as William Maltese, with whom I collaborated for the Rimbaud-Verlaine novel Ardennian Boy), Peter Tuesday Hughes, Tom Hardy (his irrepressible Cock Stealers, which should be reissued), Michael Scott (aka Roland Graeme), Derek Adams (his Miles Diamond trilogy)—none of which are as explicit as some of the current M/M romances.
There are so many good gay novels. I regret I don’t have time to keep up with all the new ones coming out. Current writers that I do follow with interest include David Lennon, Marshall Thornton (why has he not gained a Lammy?), Garry Ryan, Andrea Speed (I love her werecat series). As should be obvious, I have pretty eclectic tastes. I like comic mysteries and true noir equally. And we haven’t talked about gay mystery films at all. I do a better job keeping up with them than I do with novels. Many are outstanding. In addition to the ones I star in the second edition of The Gay Male Sleuth, I’d like to highly recommend the French film Stranger by the Lake. Nominated for a Cesar, it is unlike anything produced in the U.S. Also of interest is another French film, Nobody Else But You.
JM – Revisiting an earlier question related to The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film, the bibliography is updated to 2010, with a release in November 2012. Are you sure there’ll not be another edition? If not, do you have any plans to hand off your invaluable resource to another to carry on the torch?
DWG – No way I would do a third edition. I am already six years behind if I were, and I’m getting no younger! I wish someone would start a supplement somewhere on the web. Is that not a project your group could take on? Altogether, you have the knowledge needed.
By the way, when talking about reviewing gay mysteries, I should have mentioned that I also posted reviews to the e-journal Reviewing the Evidence from 2005 through 2013. Whereas I assumed that my reviews for the Lambda Book Review would be read mostly by an LGBT readership, those in Reviewing the Evidence were aimed at a more general readership.
JM – Now that you’ve retired, do you have any guilty pleasures?
DWG – It’s hard to realize that come August I will have been retired fifteen years. That’s almost a fifth of my life! Guilt went out the window a long time ago. Without trying to play Pollyanna, I like to pause now and then, even if I have not accomplished a thing to show for that day, to reflect on the fact that I have led a very happy life.
Stretching your question, I take a great deal of pleasure from the fact that Trent Westbrook, one of my former students, used me and my name (“Detective Gunn”) to create a character for his graphic novel Corpus Christi. A drawing of me was used as a cover for a very limited run of one chapter. It is a mystery, though not gay. Also a spiritual quest. I’m hoping it will come back into print.
JM – On behalf of the Facebook Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction Group, thank you for giving us a little of your time answering questions fans of the genre would like to know. Will you share a little about your current release and/or WIP
DWG – Thank you so much for having me. This has been fun. (And I notice that my Amazon sales for all my books has gotten somewhat better!)
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this interview, I spent the past several years reading and compiling Gay Novels of Britain, Ireland, and the Commonwealth¸1891–1981 and The Gay American Novel, 1870–1970 — that is, from The Sins of the Cities of the Plain (also reprinted by Valancourt Books) to the recognition of AIDS for the first book and from Joseph and His Friend to the first Pride Parade for the second (with an appendix giving a rapid overview through 1981). I’ve included crime novels in both works.
It intrigues me the way I read a book differently if I’m reading it as just a novel rather than as a mystery. Baxt’s trilogy offended me in many ways when I was reading each novel as an individual whodunit. When I reread the trilogy for The Gay American Novel as an example of satire with multiple targets and a large cast of characters, of whom Pharoah is only one, I discovered that I genuinely like the series.
To return to your question about judging, a good mystery can be judged by the same criteria one uses to judge any good novel; with good writing, genre is not significant.
Questions for Wayne Gunn? Feel free to reach out to him: firstname.lastname@example.org