Val McDermid, The Women’s Press, and Lesbian Detective Fiction

By Evangeline Jennings

The Scottish crime writer Val McDermid is a lesbian. If you’re reading this, you probably already know that. Hell, there are undiscovered Amazon tribes who probably know. She’s also a very successful Scottish crime writer. Ditto.

How successful is she? She has homes all over the place and she sponsors a stand at the Raith Rovers’ football stadium.

However, she had to stop writing about lesbians in order to do it. Writing in the Independent in September 2010, she explained that:

My first three novels, featuring the UK’s first openly lesbian detective, Lindsay Gordon, were published 20 years ago by the Women’s Press, a small feminist publishing house whose output went largely unreviewed by the mainstream press and was ignored by chain booksellers.

Back then, the notion that a commercial house would publish a novel that featured a lesbian protagonist was laughable. I knew that I’d never make a living as a writer if I stuck to writing about Lindsay. Luckily for me, my ambitions to spread my wings and push myself as a writer meant I embraced alternative possibilities.

There’s an inevitable element of self-justification there. I discovered Lindsay Gordon sitting on my father’s bookshelves in the mid to late nineties. Based on their publication date and remembering our life then all too well, I can say with complete confidence that they were purchased at either the Waterstones in Southport or an airport bookshop – hardly alternative cutting edge booksellers. I also translate that final sentence to mean “My ambition to make a living meant I decided to write about a straight detective, Kate Brannigan, instead.”

Neither comment is meant as a criticism. Twenty years ago, you could not make a living writing books about a lesbian detective – that much is clear. Today, perhaps, you can. Although it probably helps if you’ve made a name for yourself first. Most of the successful lesbian fiction I can recall comes from non-genre authors. It’s also worth pointing out that while Kate Brannigan was hard-boiled, hetero, and out there on what probably passed for the cutting edge at the time – her lover was a music journalist and they did bands and gigs and shit together, it was only when McDermid began to write about a  mainstream man that she became truly successful.

Tony Hill had testicles, he was a clinical psychologist, and he profiled serial killers. How much more populist – and less lesbian – can you get? McDermid’s success has been build on a British Silence Of The Lambs series without any kind of role for Jodie Foster.

Still in the Independent, McDermid debates the issues that may have made “lesbian” books more acceptable or indeed welcome in polite company. She suggests all the obvious explanations: society has changed and gay became cool. And then argues that it might simply be that there are so many good lesbian books being written now that a critical mass has been achieved and people can’t avoid them any longer.

I suspect that the emergence of twenty years worth of new, mostly open-minded readers has been the most critical factor. I also think that lesbianism, in particular, has become cool. Almost as cool as female bisexuality and a healthy interest in most things BDSM. I’m still not sure whether it’s GOOD that these things are cool now because the tide can change quickly and much of the interest is surely prurient and masturbatory.

Whatever.

McDermid also makes passing reference to Patricia Cornwell as a lesbian writer. Here I beg to differ. Cornwell may be a lesbian but her books are not lesbian books. They’re hetero genre fiction with that most irritating of hip accessories, the quirky lesbian supporting actress. Cornwell’s first books were close to captivating. The quality declined quickly however and by the time she started writing about werewolves, countless sharks had been jumped. I understand Cornwell is hopping between the straight Kay Scarpetta and her lesbian niece Lucy in order to express both sides of her own personality but I don’t care very much and I can’t agree that this is lesbian fiction. Not in the way that McDermid’s own Lindsay Gordon series was. Or her more recent Trick Of The Dark.

Val McDermid’s popularity means that her Lindsay Gordon books are still in print. I’m not sure where McDermid found the inspiration for Lindsay*, a Scottish lesbian-slash-journalist-come-detective, but she’s still my favourite of all her creations. Her publishers, The Women’s Press, also introduced me – via my family “library” – to crime writers as fine as Marcia Muller, Mary Wings, and Barbara Wilson – the latter two also lesbians writing lesbian detective fiction. Wilson – also known as Barbara Sjoholm – subsequently led me to authors like Katherine V. Forrest and Sarah Schulman. But I think they should be saved for a future conversation.

Recommended Reading

Mary Wings – She Came Too Late (First in the Emma Victor series)

Barbara Wilson – Murder In The Collective (First in the Pam Nielsen series)

Val McDermid – Report for Murder (First in the Lindsay Gordon series)

*I might be lying

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